Small AV Integrator, Aggressive Marketing Program
Feb 1, 2006 8:00 AM, By Don Kreski
SmartChoice AV founder offers practical marketing tips.
Smart Technologies' Smart Board.
Mike Palecek believes in aggressive marketing.
Though he has only one full-time employee and he opened his doors only 2 1/2 years ago, the Racine, Wis.-based SmartChoice AV Solutions already has a 100-page website and a well-established seminar program.
“Marketing is like sowing seeds,” Palecek says. “It’s the only way I’ll get bigger.”
Though growth is definitely his goal, Palecek says he has no interest in low-margin sales. “Something my old boss told me: It doesn’t matter how much volume you do; all that’s important is the profit you make.”
For that reason Palecek directs most of his marketing efforts toward products where competition is low and margins high. For example, when Smart Technologies announced the new Smart Board 600 series in October, he saw an opportunity. “All the moons and planets were in the right place at the right time,” he says. “There are only three other Smart dealers who sell in Wisconsin. I had some cash in my pocket. And it’s a time of the year where I don’t have a whole lot of stuff to do.”
Palecek felt a seminar would be his best means of promoting the new SmartBoards, so he began lining up hotels and other venues throughout the state. “I tried some weird locations, like art galleries, where a teacher might say, ‘This would be a cool place to visit.’ And I picked times that a teacher could attend after school, even if he had to drive and hour and a half to get there.” Palecek ended up with nine locations with sessions at 4 p.m and 6 p.m. He served hors d'oeuvre and refreshments—wine and cheese for the most part, for the exception of a couple of locations that didn’t allow alcohol.
The turnout was great. “We had 203 registrations and 185 attendees,” he says. One reason why the no-show rate was low: He emailed everyone reminders a day or two before each session and again the morning of the seminar.
Palecek is an old hand at staging seminars. He spent 23 years at Midwest Visual Equipment Company/MCSi in Milwaukee, where shows and seminars were always important. He has offered seminars of one kind or another almost since starting up SmartChoice AV.
Palecek’s offerings have included another round of SmartBoard sessions last spring and a number of sessions promoting Cablecast from Tightrope Media Systems, another profitable line. “I always think like I’m still working for one of these big guys,” he says, “but then it really zaps a lot of your time to do something like that.”
In an attempt to trim his time and money commitment, Palecek tried online seminars last summer, using webcasting software to promote the Tightrope product. “What’s good about a webinar is that it’s a minimum time commitment from a customer, and I didn’t have to drag myself or a vendor all over the state,” he says. “I thought it worked out pretty well, too. We had 10 to 15 attendees per session.”
“When all is said and done, doing the Smart shows in the fall was a tough decision for me because I poured at least $8,000 into them as well as three weeks of my life, plus follow-up. At times I felt I was casting a lot of bait on the water, and I kept asking myself, ‘Should I be more conservative?’ Cutting back was a big temptation.”
Most of the time, Palecek uses direct-mail postcards to promote his seminars. “Have you ever used AmazingMail?” he asks. “You upload your artwork in JPEG format, then upload a comma-delimitated mailing list and it’s a done deal.” Palecek says the rate is $1.09 each for printing and mailing 6”x9” postcards, but he usually waits for the end of a quarter, when they often take 10 percent off. “I started with their smaller postcards, 4”x5 1/2,” but I think they just got lost.”
Palecek says he has tried email invitations with some success, “But I get arrested by the spam police in most of the big school districts.” As a result, he’s more comfortable with regular mail. For the SmartBoard seminars, he says he mailed about 3,700 invitations from a list he purchased from Market Data Retrieval. “If you’re going into the school market, that’s such a cheap, good, well-qualified mailing list. Every single school in the state got an invitation from me.” He did not stop there, however.
“I’ve got a guy who does telemarketing for me inexpensively,” Palecek says. “He’s a retired salesman and he loves doing it. When I send my invitations out, I include him in the mailing list. Once he gets it, he knows the next day to start calling.” In addition, Palecek adds information about each of his offerings to his website, and he always asks attendees to register online, which speeds up the process and makes it easy to send reminders just before each show. “I also had maps for each location on the site, so I didn’t need to deal with directions.”
The SmartChoice website
The website, www.smartchoiceav.net, is, in fact, Palecek’s largest marketing investment, though he says it has been much more an investment in time than in money.
“I didn’t have a lot of cash when I started the site, though I did have a degree in journalism. I sat down and wrote all that copy and my wife edited it for me.” Palecek says he uses a service that hosts the site and it gives him an easy process for posting pages. “If I want to make a change, I can do it in just a couple of minutes. It costs me just $700 a year, but it’s like anything else. If you don’t have the time or the skill to do it, you’re not going to get it done.”
The site includes pages on featured product lines, special offers, sample installations, tutorials on projector setup, digital signage software, and other information useful to his customers. When the SmartBoard seminars ended, he added a section on with answers to many of the questions attendees asked during the seminars. “I put the URLs in follow-up emails to the participants, to further drive them to my website,” he says.
Beyond the website and seminars, Palecek has had a lot of luck with promotional items, in particular Post-it note pads with his URL and phone number; a pen with red, blue, and black ink; and a Palm Pilot stylus. “I’ve had people call me a year later and tell me, ‘You know, we couldn’t find your business card, but we remembered that cool pen.’ It’s something out of the ordinary that didn’t cost me a lot of money, but every time I hand it to somebody they’re like ‘Ooh, ah, wow, I like this.’”
Palecek’s marketing program has been creative enough to win the 2005 Racine County, Wisconsin, Apollo Entrepreneurial Award. “That sounds great in itself,” he says, “but they also gave me $5,000 for additional marketing.”
Better still, Palecek is making money. He’s earning a living and is able to reinvest surplus cash in the business. And that’s something a lot of people in the AV industry are finding harder and harder to do.