The State of SparkFun Advertising


A quick order of business - this Friday, November 4th, there will be no orders shipped. We are counting all our stuff (AKA, a full inventory physical count). Apologies for the inconvenience!



Back in 2007, when I was hired at SparkFun to develop the brand, I started by talking to a lot of employees about what makes SparkFun so unique. What I uncovered was a strong sense of pride towards our customers and their inventions – but the products were rarely mentioned. Based on that, I built SparkFun’s brand foundation with this philosophy: it’s not the product that’s most important; it’s what you do with it that counts! All and all, I was pretty excited to work for such a humble, easy-going company.



We redesigned the logo to more appropriately match the passion that customers and employees had for SparkFun and created some business cards. I thought it was pretty cool how SparkFun shares as much information about our products as possible, so we claimed “Sharing Ingenuity” as our tagline to reflect that willingness to share.




What the heck is "Park Fun?"

The next challenge was to figure out how that translated into an ad campaign. Instead of focusing on showcasing our products in ads, we decided to promote the physical computing category overall – something that would benefit the entire movement and not just us. We started featuring customers in full-page, full-color, full-bleed ads with a summary of their story in the body copy. We wanted to shine the spotlight on what inspired us the most - which just so happened to be our customers!



We traveled out to meet some of the subjects in our ads in person (or on one occasion, flew to Las Vegas for a more appropriate backdrop for the project!), asked all sorts of questions over good food, and took lots of photos and video. We had a blast and we learned a thing or two (to say the least)! I hope you had as much fun as we did!



We placed the photos and stories in some key trade publications: Nuts and Volts, Servo, Circuit Cellar, Robot, and the newcomers, MAKE and Elektor. These publications allowed us a good communications channel to our like-minded geeky brethren. We even reached out and placed our ads in WIRED magazine for a summer to see if branching out to a broader (but still geeky) readership would help spread the love to people who might not be exposed to those deeply-rooted trade pubs yet. We supplemented the ads with in-depth video interviews that we placed on YouTube.

Did the ad campaign work? Well, yes and no. 



We had some really encouraging results. I looked at our Google analytics for people searching for the term “sparkfun” (as one word – potentially meaning that they had heard of us before or had been exposed to the brand somewhere since they weren’t searching for “spark fun” with two words). Some background info: we started using Google analytics in January of 2008, so if you look at the graph, you’ll see our traffic is flatlined before mid January. Check out the huge jump in people searching for us in April of 2008, the month we launched our ad campaign! I was elated!! Then people started telling us they saw our ads! Some people even said the ads introduced them to SparkFun – which made my day!  The best part of the campaign was getting to know some of our customers personally, giving them the spotlight, and telling their stories to the community. These stories fueled our efforts and deepened our mission. The customers we featured made our journey real, and propelled us forward even more. If nothing else, this was worth it!

So what didn’t work? Well, the entire campaign cost us around $60-160k per year. That’s a lot of money. Although year after year we grew our sales and web traffic kept rising, we didn’t set up any click-through streams or landing pages to track. And since we weren’t pushing our products directly, we couldn’t extrapolate what part of the growth was due to the ad campaign and our branding efforts and what was due to other influencing factors. 



And to throw some salt in our wounds, we didn’t see an obvious increase in our search traffic when we expanded placements in Robot, Elektor, and WIRED in 2010. Our search traffic continued to increase, but again, we couldn’t give the campaign credit for the increased traffic. Our campaign left us with too many unanswered questions. In short, other than the bump in search traffic in April of 2008, we couldn’t justify the placement costs.



Now, after a year without our original ad campaign, we (the Marketing Communications department, which has now grown to 8 people!) miss talking with our customers and hearing their stories. We miss meeting with them in person, and giving them some glory for their ideas and hard work. We miss seeing the fruits of our labor and our customer’s pride in traditional print media – something that we can save, frame, and mark a certain place and time in history. If you have been to our office and taken the tour, you might notice all of our previous ads hanging in a few of our main hallways. We think of it as our family portrait wall. And we miss adding a fresh portrait to it every few months.


Copper Mountain's Dwight Eppinger.



My department still needs to promote the brand moving forward. In any type of branding & marketing effort SparkFun puts forth, we will always focus on you and your ideas. But we know that we’ll need a measurable impact in order to justify the expense and effort. So what’s next?



Our mission is to enable anyone anywhere to play and create with today’s technology. We will always share as much information as possible about the products and how to use them. We want to get the latest and greatest bits and pieces of technology in people’s hands and let the individual’s creativity shine. We will always reach out to young and old, experienced or newbie, Engineer or artist and help educate and spark fresh interest in inventorship. In 2012 we will start venturing out to meet you once again. We will be placing your stories, not in print, but on our site, on Facebook and Twitter, and (of course) our wall of fame. We will connect your stories with the news industry to help feed good and encouraging stories of invention to the world. 




Look for this banner at the top of the SparkFun webpage.

But to do all this, we need you! Fill out the project form, tell us how you are using our products. Continue to send us links, images, and your stories. Tell us your prototyping challenges, and what you learned throughout the creation process. Tell us what you want to do next, and what you want to see from us to enable more people like you.



Beyond that, you can talk to your schools and teachers to help introduce the fun (and very hands-on) side of Math & Sciences to kids. Get a PTH Simon Kit or LilyPad E-Sewing Kit for your friend, co-worker, or your grandma. Pick up a copy of Elektor, Nuts and Volts, Circuit Cellar, WIRED, Servo, Robot, and Make Magazine. Attend a Maker Faire, take a soldering workshop, visit your local hackerspace or start up one in your hometown. And if you’ve been waiting for an excuse to start tinkering with GPS, Arduino, or XBee, seize the day!! And tell us about your experience! Who knows, we may just give you or someone you know a call to see if you’re interested in being featured.



And keep your eye peeled for stories from your fellow inventors!!
 


Comments 36 comments

  • Yea red boxes!

  • Here is a thought for advertising. Feature a hack/design of the week (like on a Monday) where you find/people submit a hack/design to a site like Instructables that features a Sparkfun product.
    If someone’s project/tutorial is featured give them a kickback link where they can get free products or credit toward products. You give incentive to people to create with your products and you show people what they can be used for in the field.

    • If I could +32,767 (1 more and it would roll over and be -32,768) this comment, I would!

      • If only it were so simple,
        As it may be a number 232 or more.
        Where as 32,767 might appear as a mere dimple.
        It really takes an understanding of what is at webpage core.
        I like your rhyme: could, would! Very clever.

    • We love Instructables and have worked with them in the past on a contest or two. The Microcontroller Contest was a lot of fun. We’d love to do another contest in the future too. Thanks for the suggestion.

      • Oh cool! Hey, does your settings currently notify users of events like this? I found out about the logic contest, but I don’t think I saw an email. I just something I saw on one of your new updates. If there is a way to opt in I would like to.

        • Not currently. We’ve tossed around the idea of a customer newsletter to only those who opt in, but we haven’t found a good way to offer different content than what the blog currently offers. And we don’t want to just regurgitate the same content in different media. We did a blog announcement and a few followup posts on the Microcontroller Contest with Instructables back when it was happening. The blog really is the best way to keep up on events. But thanks for the suggestion. It’s good to know there’s interest for this type of thing.

  • You have ads? I didn’t even know.
    I found Sparkfun while looking for Arduino boards to buy online. You had the best site.
    I buy stuff (Other stuff, stuff that you don’t stock) at other sites too, but your site is, hands down, the best commerce site on the web for this stuff. It’s not even a contest.
    With your site, it’s easy to find what you want right away, it’s obvious how many are in stock, and there are links to the item’s documentation right there.

    • We didn’t run the ads all the time. We more or less had to rotate the ads monthly in different publications, so unless you are an avid subscriber to those publications, you could have missed our ads. But they did still reach a fair amount of people. We have a lot more people subscribed to our blog now, so this is probably one of the best channels to feature you awesome inventors out there.
      Thanks for the compliments on the site! I’m sure IT, Marcomm, and RobertC are all grinning right now. :)

  • I have been in the advertising industry for 17 years and the biggest misconception is advertising should yield an immediate increase in sales.
    Well… yes and no. That is what advertisers want but its not really how it works.
    The best way to look at it is to become known… recognition… To become familiar. SO when someone wants or needs your product “you” are the first company they consider and seek out. To stand out against your competition.
    “Your not selling beer at a sporting event or relying on impulse purchasing"
    You should see a gradual increase in sales but huge spikes in sales are unlikely. Smaller spikes are possible but usually hard to measure against normal sales.
    There are good and bad ways to advertise, I have seen a lot of companies throw away lots of money on bad advertising, poor choices. Mainly because they didn’t understand their own products much less their industry and target markets. So far what I have seen Sparkfun doing looks good.
    Just keep in mind, it can take a long time for results from an advertising campaign to show results, track everything and keep an eye out for things that work well.
    So, don’t sweat the small stuff and keep up the good work. ;)

    • Thanks for kind words. I really enjoyed creating the ads and meeting the customers featured in them. You’re right in that it can take a while to see the impact of a good campaign. We are hoping that if we continue to feature customers, just not in print, that we will still see that impact over time. Thanks again for the encouragement!

  • Yep. Thats how I found out Sparkfun. Through Nuts And Volts. Before the ads, I never saw whole write-ups of projects by a store. Now everyone’s doing it! SF has definitely been ahead of the curve.

  • “We’re SparkFun advertising started - and where it will go in the future."
    Should that not read "Where ..” ?

    • Please change it guys! Grammar for $800! :-)

    • Also, your comment count appears to be off. Title says 33 (which is correct), comments heading says 36.
      Furthermore, last time I commented Firefox tried to make me download a .json file.

  • You have web errors

    • like how?

      • He could be referring to these 79 errors.
        The number of errors changes with each new comment submitted.

        • ah.

          • The character encoding probably has only one character wrong, could even be something invisible, I hope your text editor has a “gremlin zapper” like TextWrangler.
            Those missing alt attributes will be easy to fix. Even if an image doesn’t have any alternative text it still needs to have an alt=“” attribute.
            I’m wondering what those “data” elements on links are supposed to be?

            • I don’t want to get in a standards battle, but by and large having a site pass an automated validator 100% is an exercise in futility.
              The character encoding is a known issue - we’re working on getting everything moved to UTF-8, but it’s a tough problem and requires a significant amount of downtime while we convert the data.
              The other errors, like having a data attribute on an anchor, are by and large forgivable as every modern browser can handle it. If there are site issues such as “I can’t comment!” or “I’m getting a 502”, that’s another story, but site issues like “you’re using a non-standard css definition to get the site to render in IE7” I will let pass.
              Having alt tags on images is another thing we’re trying to make better (for obvious accessibility reasons), but we simply haven’t gotten there yet.

              • But the IE issues can easily be worked around with IE-only conditional comments, which technically are valid comments as far as all other browsers and tools are concerned.
                Since you mentioned IE7, I assume you’re lucky enough not to have to support IE6. ;-)

                • Right, right. And if you look at our code, you’ll see some conditional IE comments and maybe even a few swear words ;)
                  We dropped IE6 support about a year ago, and are considering similar for IE7 now that Google and others are moving in that direction.
                  Thanks for your comments!

  • I did not know Sparkfun had an advertising campaign until after I got bored one day and flipped through your website. I honestly am not sure how I found Sparkfun. I think it was probably a Hack A Day article or something. That is the most likely. So send them some of that advert dollars if you have not already.

    • Hack A Day has definitely thrown us some traffic spikes in the past. It’s really encouraging to see how closely knit the community is, yet how quickly it is growing. Events like Maker Faires, local groups like hackerspaces, and awesome content-packed community sites like Hack A Day have really exposed a lot of people to the addiction of invention… as well as the compelling need to void warranties! We are truly grateful to be associated with such awesome creative folks!!

  • I can just imagine Open Source Greg saying “Open Source aaAAlll the things”!


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