When Julie Cole and her friends launched Mabel's Label's eight years ago, they knew they knew that word-of-mouth endorsements would be critical to their success.
"Since we created a product that didn't exist in the marketplace, our biggest challenge was to educate the market that they needed our labels," Ms. Cole says.
The four founders knew their labels were practical and fun, and that parents would love them – but they needed to get the word out.
They turned to social media and have never looked back.
As its slogan emphasizes, Mabel's Labels makes "labels for the stuff kids lose!"
The Hamilton-based company was founded in 2002 by two sisters and two friends – friends who subsequently married the sisters' brother and uncle. Ms. Cole has six children and collectively the four women – now all related – have 13.
"The idea of labels just came to us," Ms. Cole says. "After seeing countless masking tape labels on toddlers' sippy cups, we said, 'we can do better than that'."
Even though they knew nothing about product development, they had one important thing going for them: They were their own target market. They knew the types of labels their customers would want.
Just as important, they knew that moms get together and talk all the time, and a frequent topic of conversation is cool products for kids.
Since these conversations are influential to mothers' purchase decisions, one challenge was to extend their reach.
"We had to go beyond 10 moms talking at a hockey game. Our reach had to be much, much larger," Ms. Cole says.
That realization led to social media becoming the basis of the company's marketing strategy.
Mabel's Labels' social media objective was two-pronged.
The first was visibility.
Their products are available online, rather than in stores, so it is important for online buyers to become aware of them.
The company initially targeted the millions of mothers who were already online in North America; those who are already online are easier to convert into customers than those who have to be enticed online.
They also targeted "mommy bloggers" who can have a powerful online voice and are looking for new content. In Mabel's Labels' early days, the founders reached out to influential bloggers by asking to run a contest on their blog sites.
Ms. Cole herself is an influential, and syndicated, blogger with 6,000 followers on Twitter. To reach online mothers who might not follow bloggers, Mabel's Labels drummed up volunteer brand ambassadors called Buzzmamas, who tell online stories about how they use Mabel's Labels products and post news about the company on their own Facebook pages.
The second objective of their social media strategy was engagement.
Through the blogs of Ms. Cole and others at Mabel's Labels, as well as their website, and social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter, the company has developed a brand community among online mothers, which it refers to as the " Mabelhood."
In building this online community, they pay attention to three things. First, they keep a close eye on each and every comment posted about the company online, and quickly respond to all of them. Not only does this connect customers more closely to the company, it is also a great source of feedback about what's working, what's not, and what new products interest customers.
Second, as Ms. Cole puts it, they create "contagious content" – stuff that the community is interested in and will want to talk about.
For example, at this time of year, many parents are wondering about whether they should send their children to summer camp, so Mabel's Labels recently held an online discussion (a Facebook chat) with a camp director who provided advice and answered questions, as did many of the participants.
Finally, they make sure that the content posted online – and their dealings with people – reflect the company's core values.
To ensure this, it's essential to hire the right people. Since they encourage employees to blog and tweet about Mabel's Labels, the founders have developed a two-hour mini-course on the importance of preserving the company's core values. One of those values is "You be you and I be me." It would be inconsistent with that value for employees to be judgmental about child-rearing, for example, when they post online content.
The social media strategy used by Mabel's Label's has been enormously effective. Its Facebook fan page, which has 20,000 fans, was identified as one of Inc. magazine's Top 20 Awesome Facebook Fan Pages , the only Canadian company on the list.
The company has grown from four founders making labels in someone's basement to 40 employees working in a 14,000-square-foot facility. The founders received the 2009 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Award in the "momentum "category, in recognition of the business's growth.
"We've created more than a business," Ms. Cole says. "We've created a community. And our engagement with that community is the fun part of what we do."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Becky Reuber is a professor of strategic management in the Rotman School of Management of the University of Toronto.
This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Your Business website.