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the challenge

Sean Neville is the owner of Healthwick Canada, an online retailer that provides home delivery of adult diapers in discreet, unlabelled boxes.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek out expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

Businesses that deliver what they promise can usually rely on some word-of-mouth marketing from customers. But when you're selling diapers for grown-ups, even the most satisfied of customers are likely to stay mum.

"When people suffer from incontinence, it's not something they openly discuss, and they're certainly not going to be telling people in their circle that they're using an adult diaper," says Sean Neville, owner of Healthwick Canada, an Oakville, Ont., online retailer of adult and youth diapers that opened its e-doors two years ago.

Early on, Mr. Neville understood the need to be discreet and began delivering his products in plain, unbranded boxes. He also knew that one diaper doesn't fit all, so he stocked his online store with more brands and options than would be found in a pharmacy or grocery store. A sampling program allows customers to try up to five diapers for free, paying only for the cost of shipping.

Despite the lack of ringing endorsements from customers, Healthwick has been enjoying healthy sales, especially over the past year, when revenue grew about 50 per cent month over month, says Mr. Neville, who employs 10 full- and part-time workers.

"We're on track to break a million [dollars in annual sales] very soon," he adds.

But Healthwick would be doing even better if it could gain the attention of more people, says Mr. Neville, and that's easier said than done. In addition to the lack of word of mouth, Healthwick also faces the challenge of trying to reach and sell online to older customers, many of whom are light Internet users or don't go online at all.

Mr. Neville has advertised online, in print and on radio, and has also promoted Healthwick to doctors.

"My efforts with health practitioners has been working to a degree – we're getting referrals from them. But it's limited because some people just don't want to discuss their incontinence, even with their doctor," Mr. Neville says. "The Internet also worked to some degree, but the rest didn't really deliver results."

THE CHALLENGE: How can Healthwick reach people who spend little time online and would rather not discuss or even acknowledge their incontinence?


Cam Marston, speaker, author and consultant at Generational Insights, Mobile, Ala.

I'd advise Sean to stick with his Internet marketing. The generation that is moving onto the Internet the quickest is his target market. In the U.S., 50 per cent of those 65 years and older are online. While they may not purchase a lot online, they are out there and noticing the advertisements. Sean can create some very highly targeted (Google) Adwords campaigns and banner ads for senior-oriented websites.

The Internet offers the anonymity that his buyers desire. His website needs to make it very clear that the names and contact information of those who do buy from him aren't shared with any other organization for more marketing purposes. Furthermore, he needs to make it clear that no e-mails or snail mail offers will come to the buyer ever, knowing that a flyer in the mail that screams "Buy more diapers!" can make for a very embarrassing moment for the customer.

There is a massive generation of baby boomers who are about to phase into the years when such products will become important. The boomers know how to engage the Internet, how to make purchases online, and will do more of it as time goes on. They're taking care of their parents and may end up helping their parents with such products. Additionally, they'll begin needing these products for themselves soon and the anonymity of the Internet is not lost on them.

Gary Nugent, online marketing advocate and website and search-engine optimization consultant, Edmonton

With more than 4,000 monthly searches for the phrase "adult diapers" alone, the traffic is clearly out there. If you add in all the relevant searches, including brand names, plurals and singulars, and misspellings, the addressable market for Healthwick is in the tens of thousands.

Healthwick could employ a number of quick wins. To get more relevant Web traffic, Healthwick needs to get more content on its pages – at least 250 words a page. Mr. Neville should also perform thorough keyword searches and optimize on-page content and metadata, or titles. Healthwick should also build an editorial calendar and start blogging more frequently, at least once a month. The last post on its website is from November of 2013.

To make it easier for its target audience to find products, Healthwick should simplify its website navigation and menus, emphasizing the top 20 per cent of products. Currently, there are 30-plus things for a user to click on the homepage, which is distracting.

John DeHart, CEO of Nurse Next Door, Vancouver

What do Viagra and adult diapers have in common? One thing: It's embarrassing to talk about. While other companies would have taken a more discreet, sensitive or softer approach to their advertising, Viagra embraced the awkwardness. They made light of a delicate situation and made it fun to talk about. Shake up the space with a "cheeky" campaign. In fact, I would be as bold as to not even call them diapers.

But the question remains: How do you make talking about diapers fun? Try developing highly targeted, quality content on the website. Give honest reviews of the products that address the major concerns: Is it noisy under clothes? How's the fit? How absorbent is it? Is it comfortable? People want to know. This targeted content would have the added benefit of some serious online traffic pull for the growing number of potential consumers searching this online.


Stay with Internet marketing

Launch a highly targeted online campaign with Google's AdWords and banner ads for websites geared to seniors.

Build an editorial calendar

Add more content to Web pages. Blog at least once a month.

Shake things up

Launch a campaign to take the awkwardness out of talking adult diapers. Give honest product reviews full of practical information that people really want to know but dare not to ask about.

Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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