Keith Bergstrom from Prestwick House – Podcast Transcript

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Shaun Ryan:  [0:04] Hi, I’m Shaun Ryan from SLI Systems, and this is the Ecommerce Podcast. Today, I’m talking to Keith Bergstrom, general manager from Prestwick House. Welcome, Keith.

Keith Bergstrom:  [0:14] Thank you, Shaun. How are you doing today?

Shaun:  [0:15] Very good. Thanks.

Keith:  [0:17] Good. Good.

Shaun:  [0:17] Now, traditional position to get us started. What was the first thing you ever bought online?

Keith:  [0:22] I was trying to figure that out earlier today. I actually can’t remember. I think it might have been plane tickets, but it’s been long enough now. I’m in my early 30s. So, I’m on the edge of the digital data thing. So, I’ve been fairly comfortable with ecommerce for quite a while.

Shaun:  [0:38] Yeah. OK. So, what was the most recent thing you bought online?

Keith:  [0:41] Actually, it was… I just bought a bunch of things from Everybody on the planet seems to find that user experience so useful.

Shaun:  [0:49] Yeah. It is fantastic. Were you buying books?

Keith:  [0:52] Actually, working at a bookstore, I usually end up buying other stuff there. I bought a smoker for smoking some barbecue. Should be a good weekend, like this weekend here. I ended up actually… [1:04] They did a great job upselling me on a few different things. So…

Shaun:  [1:07] That’s great.

Keith:  [1:08] I like it when other people can do that to me.

Shaun:  [1:10] It’s kind of like work. You’re investigating ecommerce at the same time as buying stuff.

Keith:  [1:15] Exactly. That’s what I always look at when I’m buying things.

Shaun:  [1:21] Sorry about the book question. I should have thought about that. Now, can you give me a little background on yourself? How did you come to be general manager at Prestwick House?

Keith:  [1:30] Well, I’ve been with Prestwick House, actually, right out of college. I started off with an English degree. I came in doing editorial work and working in the customer service side of things, doing just a few little things here and there. [1:44] Eventually, I started doing editorial work on our catalogs which is really the background that we all come from here is cataloging.

Shaun:  [1:51] Yeah.

Keith:  [1:51] That eventually turned into marketing manager and, now, general manager. So, I can but into everybody’s business.

Shaun:  [1:56] Fantastic. So, you must have been there for quite a few years now.

Keith:  [2:00] It’s approaching ten years.

Shaun:  [2:02] Yeah.

Keith:  [2:02] Very shortly.

Shaun:  [2:03] Wow. That’s fantastic.

Keith:  [2:05] It’s a great company to work for.

Shaun:  [2:06] Whereabouts is the company based?

Keith:  [2:08] We’re in Smyrna, Delaware. So, it’s sort of a rural area, on the east coast here.

Shaun:  [2:12] Cool. I’ve never been to Delaware. Now, tell me a little bit about Prestwick House. What do you guys do?

Keith:  [2:19] We’re a publisher and distributor of materials for high school and English language arts. We have everything from paperback books that the students read through teaching guides for the books, vocabulary programs. We’re sort of fully vertically integrated with everything an English Arts teacher needs.

Shaun:  [2:36] Fantastic. It’s particularly around the English teachers. Right?

Keith:  [2:42] Yes.

Shaun:  [2:42] Yeah.

Keith:  [2:42] We don’t have a whole lot in the way of social studies and all those other subject areas. We’re all… As I mentioned, I’m an English major. Our founder was an English teacher and an English major. [2:51] Our CEO is an English teacher. So, we’re all really heavily interested in the content side of things. So, everybody here loves books.

Shaun:  [2:59] Fantastic. So, I was looking on your website. The company started back in 1983. So, you mentioned you’re traditionally a cataloger, is that right?

Keith:  [3:10] Yeah. That’s correct. We have been moving more and more towards the digital side of things. Working in the education space is a little bit difficult, because the primary mover is not always the person that’s actually writing the purchase orders. [3:25] So, when we catch somebody’s eye on the catalog, they may be placing the order. Another person may be placing the order online. They may have gone through three or four different levels of approval, before it finally gets over to the final purchase order.

Shaun:  [3:38] Right. That does make it a little more complicated than your standard Amazon experience.

Keith:  [3:44] Yeah. Absolutely, but our… One of the nice things is our customers. All English teachers are kind of like us. We love books. It behaves a lot like a business to consumer site, in a lot of ways, even though in ways it’s also a business to business style site.

Shaun:  [4:00] Right. Right. So, how long have you been on the web for?

Keith:  [4:05] We’ve been on the web since about… I’d say our first real presence was in1999, shortly before I came into the company.

Shaun:  [4:14] Right.

Keith:  [4:14] But, it was a very simple, just beyond like a web brochure site. We went from that to probably having maybe 10 percent of our products up online. Everything hand managed. Almost no sales coming in that way.

Shaun:  [4:32] So, where are you now? I presume you have your whole catalog online. How much of your business is done online.

Keith:  [4:39] About 50 percent of our business is coming in online. We still track back most of our original point of contact to that catalog that comes into people’s hands. That’s how people know us. [4:50] They’re familiar with the catalog. But, more and more people are using our website, as an easier check out method. We are finding more and more people that are still coming on to our site to browse.

[5:00] But, they tend to be the smaller orders. People know exactly what they are looking for. They come in and try to place the order. Teachers tend to use about $200 to $300 of their own money throughout the year, as well as the money that is given to them by their schools. So, those orders tend to be small ‑ that ‘I need something quickly for tomorrow’ type of order, which we’ve done a lot of work to try to build those up.

Shaun:  [5:23] Right. So, your meat and potatoes, so to speak, is the large orders from people that have been looking at the catalog, make a decision. They use the website primarily as an order taking device.

Keith:  [5:32] Yeah. So, we try to… We have some quick orders, where you type in the product SKU and the quantity and press the button and get it all through as quickly as possible. We also have some browsing experiences. We’ve worked on improving the search for everybody, using SLI.

Shaun:  [5:53] Yeah.

Keith:  [5:53] We’re now integrating… We are in the process, hopefully in the next few weeks, of launching a web catalog, which would be an actual mirror of our physical catalog, where you can actually purchase items directly from the web catalog. [6:08] It’s a partner that we’re just starting off with called Zippity.

Shaun:  [6:11] Zippity. Cool. So, it tries to mimic that whole catalog experience?

Keith:  [6:17] Exactly. Because that’s where a lot of our expertise comes from. Most of our advertising copy is written to grab your attention. As you are sort of flipping through a catalog, you say, “Hey, that looks like something interesting.” So, we’re trying to make that process more smooth for people moving between the catalog and the website.

Shaun:  [6:34] Yeah. Yeah. It’s a common problem for catalogers. Come at it from quite a different angle, from pure play ecommerce operators.

Keith:  [6:43] Yeah.

Shaun:  [6:44] So, beyond the catalog, how are you getting new customers to your site?

Keith:  [6:49] New customers from our site, we have a little bit of Google AdWords going on. We’ve had a lot more success with the brand names on those. Once again, part of that I think comes from the multiple levels of buying that come from… [7:05] A teacher may first find out about our vocabulary programs by searching and finding an AdWord, but if the purchase order comes in three weeks later, then we can’t track it directly back to the AdWords. So, we’re trying to find out ways to make that work better. We’ve done very well with our social networking.

Shaun:  [7:22] Yeah.

Keith:  [7:23] It has not… We haven’t been able to really figure out how we are converting people, but we a few thousand people following us on Twitter, which, when you are talking about a universe of English teachers being 200,000. When one percent of the universe is already following us, that’s a really good start.

Shaun:  [7:41] Yeah. That’s fantastic. So, you’ve got Twitter. So, what sort of things do you tweet about?

Keith:  [7:48] The real key on this is we’re not tweeting about things that are of interest to us. [7:55] We’re not out there saying, “Hey, look at our new book. It’s really neat.” We’re out there saying, “Hey, this English teacher in California has found this great new way to teach things.” We’re doing a lot with retweets.

Shaun:  [8:05] Yeah.

Keith:  [8:05] I can’t speak highly enough of my staff and how well they are doing with the social networking things.

Shaun:  [8:11] Cool. So, how many people do you have contributing to your social media efforts?

Keith:  [8:17] There’s pretty much one person who is our copywriter. We’re a fairly small organization. We work hard to be very lean. There’re only 30 of us for the entire company. Annie has just done a fantastic job managing our social networking. [8:32] We do bring in… Everybody in our staff is… well, maybe not everybody, very close to everybody has been involved in creating some sort of content for the blog, from our art director will say, “Hey, I found this great new way to make a new cover for one of our books. Here’s the process that I went through,” to a writer saying, “Hey, this is some research that I’ve been going into,” or anybody who finds anything just interesting to an English language arts person.

Shaun:  [8:58] Cool. So you’re just trying to engage them in sort of an actual passion that you have within the company.

Keith:  [9:05] Exactly. It makes it difficult, once again, to track things back. But with the positive number of people that we have saying, “This is exactly the way that we want to be engaged within this media,” we’re fairly comfortable putting the resources out there, to say if everybody says, “This why we want to be contacted in this medium,” we’re not going to try to force them with other ways. [9:27] They’ll enjoy our brand name, and it becomes more of a brand advertising than the direct mail, which is where we come from, or the direct marketing.

Shaun:  [9:36] But they will build on each other, or they can be hard to track, frustratingly.

Keith:  [9:42] Exactly.

Shaun:  [9:43] So you’ve got Twitter. You have your blog. You also have Facebook. I presume you have one piece of content you may blog about. You tweet about that. You put it on Facebook.

Keith:  [9:56] Exactly. We really try to push out content everywhere.

Shaun:  [9:59] Put it in your newsletter as well. We do the same thing. Tell me a little bit about the other technologies. You mentioned the catalog that you’re rolling out in SLI. What else are you using on the site that’s working?

Keith:  [10:14] The whole backbone of it is actually an ASP.NET storefront that our web partners, the ones who are actually hosting it… We don’t have anybody in‑house who’s dedicated to work on our website. [10:26] Focal Tech is a company outside of Pennsylvania that has been doing a great job of customizing pretty much anything we want to do on it. We say, “Hey, we want to try this here and there.” Occasionally, they end up saying, “This isn’t something that’s part of our forte.”

[10:41] We’re working on integrating QAS for some address verification, which is decidedly more important for somebody who does catalogs like we do. Then we’re also working on initial discussions with a couple of web‑recommendation engines.

[10:56] Coming from that, historically looking at just making sure our channel is as smooth as possible, getting people who know what they want to be able to check out very quickly, eliminating extra pages has been the focus, and that’s what Focal Tech has been working with.

[11:10] Now, we’re looking at that B2C sort of idea and working on building some recommendation engines and then some other back‑end things like that.

Shaun:  [11:20] Do you have ratings and reviews as part of your site?

Keith:  [11:24] We don’t. Actually, between everything that I’m looking at, we’re looking at trying to create ratings and reviews. What I didn’t want to do is launch like so many people do where you throw it up there, and you cross your fingers, and then nobody ever reviews things. [11:37] We have about 14,000 SKUs, which makes things very fragmented. If we end up with only one out of every 50 to 100 items having any recommendation on it whatsoever, it’s very quickly going to become, “Oh, this is not something that’s important to them.”

[11:56] We have an offline curriculum advisory board, which is made up of some top teachers who are reviewing all of our new products. I’m looking at when I watch the recommendation engine to also look at launching a reviews page and try to push out maybe some awards for people that put positive things on there.

[12:14] Then I have to figure out how we want to integrate that with social media so it doesn’t look like we’re trying to push out, “Oh, look at this great product that somebody said we did great things about.” I’m trying to make sure that all that can be integrated without starting to sound like…

Shaun:  [12:30] … you’re pushing yourself too hard.

Keith:  [12:30] … we’re pounding on their doors. Exactly.

Shaun:  [12:33] Understood. The ratings and reviews can make a big difference to the sell‑through rate, I believe. But you’re right, it does need to be pushed out right. You’ve got to make sure that you don’t just put it up there. It sounds like you’re going about it the right way. [12:48] Is there anything else? What are your biggest headaches at the moment? What’s not working? What do you want to fix?

Keith:  [12:55] One of the issues, and this is probably not of a whole lot of interest to most people, is just trying to bring back information from our website seamlessly into our back‑end system, which is SAP Business One, which is the small/medium‑sized part of SAP. [13:11] We’ve been working with a couple of partners trying to figure out the best way to feed a stream of data back into our database without making everything upset. That, on a day‑to‑day basis, is a little headache we’re trying to overcome right now.

[13:25] When we had it working for a short time with an old version of the software, it saved dozens of hours a week in our customer‑service team. It’s definitely a very big internal priority.

Shaun:  [13:37] That’s an IT project, right?

Keith:  [13:40] Yeah. Trying to figure out ways to tie our end customer back to who’s the first person that initiated the order would be the great big headache that I don’t think anybody in the education space has ever really been able to figure out.

Shaun:  [13:58] What are you using for your analytics on your site?

Keith:  [14:05] We’re just using Google Analytics. Many of the people at SLI have done a great job of giving us some background information on it. Actually, one of the new things, I’m trying not to sell your products too much there, but we’ve been in discussion with one of your new projects about really doing some in‑depth analytics. [14:23] It looks like there’s some neat stuff going on. Once again, we have a fairly small team, so being able to really dig into those analytics is a little bit beyond our expertise right now. We get the basic level, and we can do some basic things, but I know that there’s a lot more that we can be doing.

Shaun:  [14:42] We see a lot of our customers can either struggle to get it all set up 100 percent correctly or leverage the analytics as much as possible. There are some big challenges there.

Keith:  [14:54] We used to use Google Goals in order to try to figure out how conversions worked out and base it on average order size, but by the time we figured out how the ecommerce side of things was… After that was launched, it was just a huge step forward for us. We could see actual value.

Shaun:  [15:11] You are right, it’s certainly a big challenge tracking back that initial interest through to the purchase order when it’s completely different people making those decisions. That’s unique to your business, too, I think.

Keith:  [15:27] Yeah. It’s a fairly common problem among people in the education space. We’ve always been a little bit distant from our customers. We don’t have a direct‑sales force. A lot of times, those big orders are coming through in a direct‑sales‑force channel. [15:42] It’s much easier to have somebody shepherd that all the way through the process, but when we’re trying to reach out to a lot of people with a smaller staff, it’s a little bit more difficult to follow that through on every individual customer.

Shaun:  [15:54] I suppose that can happen when businesses are purchasing stuff where an individual may be wanting something, but they may have an IT or a purchasing department that’s making the decisions. There are parallels there. [16:08] Interesting. You have some interesting problems, but it sounds like business is going well for you. I know you’re a busy man. You’ve got a new catalog coming out today, so I don’t want to take up too much of your time.

[16:21] We’ll wrap up here, Keith. I just want to say thank you very much for your time today, and I appreciate you sharing what’s working and what’s not working on your site.

Keith:  [16:30] Thank you. I think this podcast was actually a really great surprise. I’m happy to be a part of it. I think you’re doing a great job with it.

Shaun:  [16:37] Thank you very much, Keith.

Keith:  [16:38] Thank you.

Shaun:  [16:39] That was another episode of the Ecommerce Podcast. I’m Shaun Ryan from SLI Systems. Tune in next time.