Social Customer Service Allows Startup to Outpace the Competition

social media case studiesPatton Gleason is the first to admit he can’t sell. And just over a year after going live with his online start-up, the Natural Running Store, he hasn’t had to try.

“I’m a terrible sales guy. I’m awful at it,” Gleason says. “But I really do like this idea of ‘can a relationship really be your big marketing vehicle?'”

Turns out, it can. By wowing customers with unheard-of service, Gleason has come close to replicating the in-store experience online. In doing so, he turned the Natural Running Store into a serious competitor in the running shoe arena.

And he’s done it without spending a nickel on outside advertising. The key has been to give online buyers a very personal touch and create bite-sized content for social media.

“It is 1000% a hustle in relationships,” he says.

The result: high search engine rankings, dozens of features on like-minded blogs and a profitable, growing business.

nat run store home

Launched in January 2011, the Natural Running Store has been profitable from early on.

Organization: Natural Running Store

Social Media Handles and Stats:

Highlights:

  • The online start-up has been profitable from early on, with no outside advertising.
  • A personalized video response to one runner’s question received nearly 300 views.
  • Sales went up about 40% for one particular shoe after the store shared a video on it.
  • For one of its top shoe models, Natural Running Store takes the top three spots in organic search, ahead of the shoe’s maker.

Beyond Zappos Service

Like many runners, Gleason is avid about his sport. Prior to starting the Natural Running Store, he managed brick-and-mortar running stores in the Dallas area.

But Gleason saw an opportunity to be a leader in what has become a new movement—natural running. “Natural” refers to running with minimalistic shoes and a form that’s more in line with the body’s mechanics.

Proponents of the running style say it’s a back-to-our-roots approach that reduces injuries and improves performance.

In January 2011, Gleason launched his store with select brands that cater to this new running style, such as Newton, Stem Footwear, Altra and Inov-8. He started with a small marketing budget, and a year later, he has barely touched his budget.

newton shoe

Natural Running Store offers hot natural running shoe brands like Newton.

Instead, he takes the time to give buyers extremely personalized service that’s rare for an eCommerce site.

We’re talking videos that thank customers for buying, videos telling customers their shoes are on the way, handwritten notes in shoe-boxes, and follow-up emails asking the athlete about his or her training plans.

Every day, Gleason also educates his audience about natural running and shoes with content that at once is highly personal and consumable by the masses.

video message

Video and social media allow Gleason to answer individual questions and share answers with all fans and followers.

First One to One, Then One to Many

Good shoes aren’t cheap, and runners typically do their homework. They want to compare brands and styles and understand how they will affect their running.

Natural Running Store frequently gets questions from athletes about shoes as well as natural running. Gleason could easily create a FAQs page and leave it at that. But four to five times every week, Gleason answers customer questions on video.

He addresses the answer directly to the person who asked—by name—typically giving a 2-minute response. The customer with the question appreciates the personal response and often tells his or her social networks.

Then, Gleason shares that video link with all of his social networks, figuring that someone else will have the same question.

Recently, a runner tweeted to Natural Running Store about soreness in one calf. Gleason began a conversation with him, just as he might with a customer in a physical running store.

When Gleason asked to see the runner’s current shoes, @MichaelRunner responded with a photo and more information:

run shoe pic

Natural Running Store helped diagnose calf soreness by reviewing a photo of the athlete's shoes.

michael runner tweets

Tweets further helped Gleason understand the problem.

In response, Gleason shot a three-minute video with a detailed answer for the runner, explaining exactly why the soreness was likely occurring, and tweeted that back to @MichaelRunner.

tv id response

michael runner video

Gleason shares his thoughts on the mechanics of why the runner is experiencing a sore calf and offers tips on his form.

michael runner tweets two

@MichaelRunner was so appreciative that in turn, he told his social networks.

First, the conversation was just between the two. Then it broadened to others in both of their networks.

“He sent out a link to it,” Gleason said. “Then other people in his network ended up retweeting that. And then a couple of other people kind of chimed in on what their experiences were.”

Next, Gleason tweeted the link to his followers and posted it on Facebook.

store tribe tweet
running store facebook

After that, the store again re-purposed that content as part of its “Top Three Questions” in its weekly email newsletter and blog.

Since then, Natural Running Store has tracked nearly 300 views of that video alone.

Judicious Use of YouTube

Gleason creates and publishes his videos using MailVu, which quickly and automatically creates a link for each video. Comparatively, YouTube uploads can take up to 20 minutes.

“You record your video and the second that it’s done, you have an HTML link that you can send out and post,” Gleason said.

Beyond ease of use, Gleason says MailVu provides Natural Running Store with simple tracking and metrics on video consumption.

Interestingly, the company saves only its most high-profile videos for YouTube. There, Natural Running Store posts very detailed training drills, tips and insider’s guides to specific shoe models.

“Because we do so many of these [videos], we choose not to use YouTube because it takes so long to upload a video and it will kind of pollute the rest of your channel if there’s just too much stuff,” he says.

“When we do put content and resources on YouTube, we do it with a very clear strategy that we want it to be something that is going to come up very high in search rankings,” he says.

Blog Love

In addition to sharing its own videos in social networks, the company gets help with SEO from happy customers writing what nearly amounts to love letters on their own blogs.

runners blog

Happy customers can't help but talk about the personalized service, which helps boost search engine rankings.

From there, Natural Running Store reposts those reviews on its blog and social networks.

It’s all about maximizing every single piece of content.

Customers Find Them, and Buy

Does all the hustle pay off in more browsers and buyers? Why yes, it does.

First, there’s SEO. A search for one of its shoe models, though it’s available all over the world, brings up Natural Running Store as the first three organic listings on three different store links. The actual maker of the shoe comes in fourth.

“Our search ranking got to be very high on our key products,” Gleason says.

running store seo

For organic search, Natural Running Store takes the top three spots in a search for one of its popular shoe models, the Inov8 Bare-X 180.

Natural Running Store also sees immediate spikes in sales after posting popular videos, such as a recent one on the Inov8 Bare-X 150.

“This is a great product, but sales had been pretty flat for a while,” Gleason says. “However, once this video went out, we had other customers chime in when we posted it and sales went up about 40%. The trajectory continued as new colors were released for the same model.”

The correlation with the traffic that the site gives and the number of conversions to sales we get is very, very high,” he adds.

Profitable from early on, the store has now grown to include Gleason and two staff members—without much of a marketing budget and without the dreaded hard sell.

“Hopefully we can empower our tribe to have great and powerful experiences,” he says. “What do we do with the resources we have to make really powerful experiences? For us, social media has been huge.”

Gleason’s Secrets of Success

  1. Don’t compete on price—Deliver powerful experiences that customers can’t help but tell others about, and that’s your brand.
  2. Ditch the hard sell—”If you look at our Twitter feed and Facebook, you might see an advertised sale three or four times. We’ve never used social media as a sales or promo tool, but as a relationship-building tool,” Gleason says.
  3. Maximize every piece of content—Replay and repackage content in as many ways and places as possible.
  4. Stay short and sweet—Videos are typically 2 to 3 minutes and blog posts hit the 300-word mark.

What do you think? How can you enhance customers’ experiences such that they can’t help but tell their social networks? How can you do more with your current content? Leave your questions and comments in the box below.

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About the Author, Casey Hibbard

Casey Hibbard is Social Media Examiner's case study writer. She is also president of Compelling Cases Inc. and author of Stories That Sell: Turn Satisfied Customers into Your Most Powerful Sales & Marketing Asset. Other posts by »




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  • http://www.IfSimply.com/ Keith Griffis

    Casey,
    That is a great story. Thanks for sharing. It shows how content doesnt need to be a one way process and personalization is key. Another thing I love to do is to send personalized videos to prospective customers explaining myself and what I would like to do with them. It works much better than a blanket email and it is hard for someone not to respond. It is as close to getting in front of someone at a social event a you can get without being pushy.

    Thanks for this article Casey! Have a great day!

    Keith

  • http://twitter.com/NorthShorePhoto North Shore

    Hi Casey, thank you for the fantastic case study. 

    My business has always been big on customer service, but your post has made me realise just how far we can go. I’m going right now to put handwritten notes (in my case, with a story about when I took the photograph, what the weather was like and so on) in every mail order.

    Thanks again, Geoff

  • http://jeffzelaya.com/ Jeff Zelaya

    Love this strategy and tactic. The customer gets educated and serviced and the business grows. Awesome work and execution. 

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  • http://twitter.com/WSIMDavies Melinda Davies

    Great post and case study.  Congratulations to Natural Running Store for being creative, relevant and providing so much value to consumers.  Keep up the great work!  You are setting an example for other business owners.  

  • Edwinlculp

     Good thing I’m writing this because my mouth is still open.  AWESOME –  Gleason, Casy and SME are permanent personal ideals.  This is a very creative way to K.I.S.S.

  • http://twitter.com/Brandsforce Brandsforce

    Great story! wonder if there’s any way to replicate this kind of success to the B2B space?

  • Kathleen Kliese

    What an inspiring story! Thank you Casey!   I checked out a video on the website, had a good laugh, and am already sold on trying natural running.  Between you and Gleason, you’ve made my day; you are definitely still the “master” of case studies.

  • Gary Pfister

    Great story with good ideas. Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/DP_Turtle David Pittman

    Casey, thanks for telling Patton’s story! This is one of those cases where my worlds collide. I’m a regular reader of Social Media Examiner and loyal customer of Natural Running Store. Patton has sent me numerous videos in response to my endless questions, and every pair of shoes comes with a hand-written thank you and – get this – a candy mint in the shoe box! On one occasion, I was having difficulty placing an order (while traveling out of state and using my smartphone to place the order while riding in a car. I tweeted to @naturalrunningstore:disqus  and Patton responded, giving me his cell phone. Even though it was the weekend and he was home with his family.

    THAT is customer service! I know many runners who have bought shoes from him, and they’re all hooked.

  • JocelMR

    This is a great case study on how personalised customer service can have a huge impact on sales.  I love how Patton is using Social Media creatively and at no time has employed the ‘hard sell’ yet his website is a success.   @twitter-424327048:disqus , I think this does still apply to B2B sales as you are still dealing with people, even if they represent a company.

  • http://greatnewsmedia.com/ Eddieographer

    Nice case study. I  tried out mailvu as well and that is the shiznit. totally changes how a company can use video.

  • caseyhibbard

    Hi Keith,

    I appreciate your comments! Great idea to send personalized video “proposals” to prospects to stand out.

  • caseyhibbard

    Ooh, I love it! People love the story behind something special like photography.

  • Colin Power

    As a Podiatrist and a content editor this article may be a bit misleading. Standing in front of a Mania or Trend makes any form of marketing easier. Giving people what they want…even if it may cause unnecessary Harm is another consideration. Having said all that you will find that Podiatrists are NOT against barefoot running as part of a training regime…we just hate to MISUSE of B.S psuedo-science to sell it. World wide foot clinics are reaping the rewards from the increased injuries…but we would prefer to make our money in a different way. In Australia the term ‘Diagnosis’ in your marketing may land you in Hot water if you are not an Actual Health professional.

    Good on Him if his customer service Heart is in the right place and he has found a trend to Run in front of…marketing rarely deals with facts…just tell them what they want to Hear and you don’t need to be able to SELL a thing.

    Don’t think that Brilliant customer service will win in every market…make sure there is a Market to service first.

    Ok as I said as a disclaimer I have over 25 years clinical experience and a Masters degree in Podiatry…I’m not against minimalist shoes or barefoot running. I do have wide clinical beliefs, incorporating Tai chi and Qi gong exercises into my therapy…but I let my patient know where the science ends and the beliefs begin.

    Ciao for Now

    Colin Power aka the “Tai Chi Foot Dr”

  • caseyhibbard

    Thanks Edwinlculp!

  • caseyhibbard

    Maybe personalized video answers to customer questions – that are then spread on social networks – can work in B2B. Why not?

  • caseyhibbard

    Hi Kathleen,

    Thanks for reading and commenting! Gleason is so enthusiastic, I may just have to start running more too.

  • caseyhibbard

    David,

    Great story! Patton is certainly onto something with his approach. And the best part, he is very genuine in his responses. He truly cares about customers.

  • naturalrunningstore

    Colin,

    Thank you for the kind words and the very sincere reply.  I believe you concerns and care for your patients are incredibly important.  What I would share is very practical experience in working with thousands of athletes, podiatrists, physical therapists and orthopedists across the globe is that there has been something missing from the running experience.  This is an activity that is instinctual in nature, however for a number of factors has become  an activity that many athletes have been hurt doing or are too scared to try.  This action that my six year old has seemed to master and manages to be elusive for many adults.  

    We take a logic and science based approach to provide any person with the knowledge and support to take a more active role in that experience, namely in the form of efficient technique and systematically developing the systems that promote a healthier and running style that can operate without the necessity for artificial support.  I do take the research part very seriously and would consider myself more that competent to identify data for nearly everything that we support.  I have no interest in fads, trends or a snappy marketing campaigns.  In that same vein, I have the same disregard for dogmatic approaches to injury prevention and treatment that are performed without consistent challenges of efficacy or more effective solutions.

    I think there is real value in an a person or athlete being able to master their craft without the necessity for artificial support.  While my experience says that not every athlete is interested in being wholly accountable to form and lower posterior chain development, there is a terribly underserved portion of the population who seeks this kind of information from an experienced and accessible resource.  We have been fortunate to combine a passion for empowering willing athletes with a medium that makes us directly accessible and accountable.

    A common theme for us is to identify the things you can control, and to focus your energies without distraction on those actions.  Keen attention to how a runner moves, communicates with the ground, posture, cadence, knee flexion and landing relative to center of mass are skills that any athlete can master when broken in to simple steps.  I am confident enough in my skill set and track record that I can and have break running down to its simplest actions, and make those actions learnable.  

    I am open to the idea that ego plays some role in this.  But I just can’t shake this notion that people are beautiful machines that are perfect on their own accord.   I believe the optimal experience (in running and life) comes when we can find connectivity, appreciation and development of ourselves without dependency on anything else.  Perhaps on a bigger scale, the lessons we learn in running just might be the ones that can make us better people.  

    I really do appreciate the time you to read the post and respond.  Should you have any questions of our philosophy or methods, please feel free to contact me directly.  Cheers- Patton (patton@naturalrunningstore.com)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Hoff/1561965089 Dan Hoff

    Great story, I love what Gleason is doing. Nobody likes annoying ads, but a personal touch like that will sell your product for you. 

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  • Colin Power

    Thanks Patton
    I like you believe the human form is an amazing thing to behold…but after over 25 years in business know that trends actually trend…so make hay while the sun shines and you may actually survive when the trend turns.

    My main concern is a Content editor and marketer that people will believe that “Customer Service” will win the Day against large concentrated “Smart” competition. You are a much smarter marketer than the article leads us to believe…potentially causing a novice business owner to believe that “customer service” is the all important key…many online marketers slaving night and day know this not to be true.

    As a retailer you have certain Luxuries that I as a Health Professional do not…the patient holds me to a Different light than you as a Retailer (laws hold me to a different light to)…so we don’t compete on the same field.

    To show you that I am not against you but rather for the patient I will unashamedly post a link to a brief article on barefoot running that I wrote.
    http://www.taichifootdr.com/barefoot-running-sunshine-coast-podiatry/

    Ciao for Now
    Colin

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  • caseyhibbard

    Thank YOU Patton for your video thank you note. Such a class act!

  • http://www.socialsitecreator.com/ Romelcanoy

    This is informative and useful, applicable post. Thanks for sharing, I learned a lot.
    webmaster:
    social network

  • http://www.i95dev.com/ecommerce-magento Henry Louis

    To me it looked more as a strategy than a social customer service. He just was trying to connect with his customers & not trying to address their concerns.

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  • http://twitter.com/MichaelRunner Michael Deming

    This is a great article and the comments here are pretty interesting too. Let me first say that I had several conversations via Twitter with Patton and he answered several questions for me. The exchange above happened while I was still running in traditional shoes and was working on transitioning away from heel striking. Patton provided great advice, which I was careful to remember was just that. Advice. He happened to be right though, and I have managed to avoid injury during the process.

    I am completely aware that Patton is not a doctor, but I also know that he clearly has more experience with running, namely “natural” running, than any doctor I have access to. Yes, I’m sure there are doctors in the area that run, or focus on “sports medicine”, but none that my insurance will allow me to see, or that I can afford to see on my own. I could make an appointment with my family doctor to discuss “natural” running, but even when I’m sick I don’t get more than 5 minutes with her. I understand. Every doctor around shuffles patients in and out all day long. Anyway, I have to do a lot of research and reach out to a lot of people in order to sift through all of the information available in order to learn what I need to learn about running and everything associated with it.
    My interactions with Patton and his thoughtful, educated responses to my questions are what made me decide to buy my current running shoes from the Natural Running Store (Altra Instincts). I didn’t buy them based on price, I bought them based on the information Patton provided, free of charge, and the social interaction on Twitter. I have 10 years experience in retail sales management and I have an appreciation for this approach to sales. Sales is all about relationships. If you build a relationship with customers, they will buy from you. Other companies try to have a presence on Twitter, but I find I’m not alone in that, if a company responds and interacts with me on Twitter, I’m more likely to buy their product than a company that doesn’t. If Patton only interacted with elite runners and only posted stories about elite runners wearing the shoes he sells, he wouldn’t have caught my attention. I probably wouldn’t have chosen that store if he just used Twitter to advertise products and sales either. I can find deals on my own.

    So, salesman or not, Patton got my business and he deserved it. Thanks Patton! And thanks Casey for the great article!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/KendraFowler24 Kendra Fowler

    Thanks for sharing this success story! The list that had the secrets for Gleason’s success will really help the others who are trying to make their mark. I loved his approach  – the one that stressed on using social media to build online relationships.

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  • caseyhibbard

    The famous @MichaelRunner! Thanks so much for your comments and sharing your personal success story about how your social media interaction with Patton made a difference – not just in the customer experience but in your running life.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/rahul.bhatnagar2 Rahul Bhatnagar

    Thanks for sharing this Story

  • Ed culp

    Michael, I’m envious.  I had a great start with Patton, the video that he sent for recommendations, up until it was time to close the deal for three pairs of shoes and a couple for my wife to be sent to Mexico.  All is now silent.  I was told that they had sent them by email which I didn’t receive and reported.  I have yet to receive the second promised email.  I have no idea why and am really really sad.  Size 13’s are practically unheard of in Mexico.

  • Edwin Culp Williams

     BTW, I did just sign up for Patton’s “100 Up Challenge” that is a great idea even for us “Senior Citizens”   He has some great ideas but I would really be happy if I knew about my order even if he can’t fill it.

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  • Steve Hallam

    Having just got to this in my ‘backlog of potentially interesting things to read when I get a moment’ I should say that it has caused me to rip up my marketing plans for a new business venture and start again with personalised video as a key element.  Inspirational stuff.

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  • Jing

    Thanks for sharing.
    I really appreciate those responsible shop-runners like Gleason. Many online shop-owners solely focus on running cost-oriented business and commercial advertisement while neglect to improve services and products. In fact, services are the core element to maintain a long-term relationship with customers. As a customer, I would definitely be fascinated by the customized services and authentic interactions.
    I know there is also a very popular restaurant near my home provides fantastic services, especially the customized cuisine in terms of different customer’s name. This special service attracts a bunch of people, and contributes to the daily long line in front of that restaurant. I can’t help but thinking that we should apply the strategy, for example, using
    social media to directly interact with customers, posting short videos for personalized answers, to other services industry, like hospitals, banks and university admissions etc. This communication approach obviously would be better than simply commercial advertisement, because it makes people see how important they are to the organization or company.

  • Heidi Lin

    Thanks for sharing.

    Many of my friends, who run online business, solely focus on lower price and making commercial advertisement. In fact, services are the core element to maintain customers.
    According to American Express Survey in 2011, 78% of consumers have failed on a
    transaction or not made an intended purchase because of a poor service
    experience.

    Except for the personalized video, I also recommend business-runners to add a Q&A section like Quora for customer interaction, customers can search, invite and designate other to answer questions. When customers share their story, they’re not just sharing
    pain points. They’re actually teaching you how to make your product, service,
    and business better.

    Maintaining a long-term relationship benefits the company because the probability of
    selling to a new prospect is 5-20%, while that for an existing customer is 60-70%. (Marketing Metrics). So far, American Express Survey shows that smaller companies place a greater emphasis on customer service than large businesses. Thus, I can’t help but thinking what if we use Gleason’s strategy in other large businesses, like hospitals, banks and university admissions, etc. Customers could directly interact with business-owner and get short personalized videos from the company, which recognize their importance.









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