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.
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.
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.
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!!