March 31, 2005
Have you ever dreamed of taking a stodgy old print publisher online and turning it into an econtent sales powerhouse? You'll adore this insiderstory of how legal forms publisher Made E-Z Products was acquired by three visionaries and turned into Socrates.com. Includes results of Web site design tests and tips on expanding your product line beyond the original founders' wildest dreams.
When it was launched back in 1988, legal forms publisher Made E-Z Products was fairly revolutionary. Office product superstore chains were taking over America, and Made E-Z's three founders worked deals for shelf space with all three of the majors (OfficeMax, Office Depot, and Staples).
Over the years they expanded to publishing 50 different forms. Plus in 1999, they launched an ecommerce site at madee-z.com. Granted it was pretty lame, but so were most print publishers' at the time.
By 2002, company growth had slowed. Had it hit the marketplace limit?
Enter a new generation of three entrepreneurs -- this time fueled with visions of what the Internet could do to the business if applied properly. After 10 months of negotiations, they bought out the assets of Made E-Z Products and relocated the company to their hometown of Chicago.
Now it was time to turn a nice little print publishing business into a giant new e-success.
First the team rebranded and relaunched the entire product line under a new name -- Socrates (TM) Know-How Solutions.
Michael Kahn, Senior Director Consumer Marketing, explains, "This is a starting footprint. Made E-Z was an effective name for a legal forms provider but the company was very much pigeonholed as being a static forms company. It was ultimately just a forms brand. Our CEO Bill Lederer had a bigger vision of where we wanted to be."
Next, the team kicked into high gear focusing on four key steps over the next 10 months:
Step #1. Intensive market research
Before you can sell (or invent) more content, you need to know who your buyers are. The team attacked the project in three ways:
o Getting quantitative data by appending extensive demographic and SIC code data to the current customer database. (Note: This did not include emails because that's pretty much a worst practice these days.)
o Gaining qualitative insights by running focus groups with the top demographics the database research revealed.
o Running a series of emailed surveys to segments of opt-in names on the house file asking folks for specific feedback about their business or personal activities that might require a contract or other legal form. (Link below to sample survey.)
The results of all three activities gave the product and site development teams a 3-D view of their customer base. Instead of selling forms to whoever would buy them, Socrates was now solving the expressed problems of very defined market segments.
"Out of the top 25% of customer SICs were 15 occupations, and 12 were contractors in some way, shape, or form. They were homebuilders, plumbers, carpenters, all those niches. Almost everyone else was in a small service business or SOHO -- attorneys, insurance brokers, realtors, mortgage brokers. ..."
Step #2. Aggressive new product development
Editorial now stepped in to develop hundreds of new forms targeting those specific segments very deeply. So, instead of coming up with a broad swathe of legal forms across loads of professions, they created dozens of forms for each niche profession.
Plus the personal content division focused on the types of legal and contractual forms that a small business owner might need in his or her private life (vs. the average consumer). For example, small business owners tend to have higher divorce rates.
The goal was to maximize profits by being able to sell multiple offerings to the niche market segments. And then to grow quietly dominating niche after niche over time.
Step #3. Site revamps and tests
Armed with new cross-sell/upsell possibilities, the marketing team now could afford to invest more in Web site design and online acquisition campaigns to gain new customers. Average customer lifetime value would ultimately be far more than just a single form sale.
First they launched a new site in May 2004 using every best practice they could research.
Critical -- Search engine optimization was baked in from the very start of the design process instead of being tacked on after launch. Site architecture and copywriting rules play such a huge part in driving search traffic that SEO must be considered *before* you build a new site.
Next the marketing team began to plan a series of improvements, based on Web analytics, survey results, and usability lab studies, including a major revamp in January 2005.
The revised site copy did something very few publishers (or online retailers for that matter) do. Instead of listing the products by name or type, the home page listed the products by what the shopper could accomplish with them.
Example: Instead of saying, "We're the leader in legal forms" the headline said "What do you need to do today?"
Instead of listing "Employment applications" the site listed "Create a job application," and instead of saying "rental contracts" the site said "Rent out an apartment." (See link below for more copy samples.)
Step #4. Expanding retail presence
The business development team met with the three major office superstore chains to solidify relations and gain additional shelf space as product roll-outs began. Then they expanded scope into Canadian office supply chains, and finally launched a series of tests in major non-office-specific retail chains across the US.
The goal was to be in every physical place a small business owner might be shopping.
Marketing stepped in to do their part, helping the retailers add Socrates print products to their own ecommerce sites. One key -- sharing what they had discovered about profitable search engine keywords with the other retailers so they could optimize for those terms as well.
Yes, this meant there would be more competition on the Web, but some customers inevitably would prefer to order from a name-brand chain so why not sell that way? Plus, extra search results for Socrates-related terms online would help block out competitors from selling non-Socrates products to the same searchers.
Anything you can do to dominate top search results with multiple listings is generally a good thing.
Socrates was on schedule to "serve over two million customers through all our channels" in 2005 when the Terri Schiavo case broke and blasted consumer interest in living wills into the stratosphere. So now the team expects to beat their budgeted goals sooner than expected.
However, they won't count on the vagaries of the evening news to grow the business. The editorial team, which has already launched 1,000 new forms, is scheduled to launch more than 10,000 additional forms and contracts in the next 12 months.
Socrates is probably the largest printed legal forms and contracts distributor in the world currently, with "two miles of retail space in office superstores." (Plus, we've heard from sources outside the company that a significant Wal-Mart deal is pending.)
The Web site has cracked Alexa's medium-size rankings in the mid-50,000's and is working its way up with more traffic generated by SEO and SEM than anything else. Obviously the more products the team adds, the more SEO traffic they'll get, so "we expect to see the site make significant traffic gains in the next year."
The site revamp in January helped contribute to an average 40% sales gain in first quarter 2005 (prior to the Schiavo case breaking).
95% of Web sales are electronic downloads in various formats including PDF and Word. However, the office superstore sites are selling print editions currently.
What's next? Possibly online subscriptions.
Useful links related to this article:
Samples of Socrates before-and-after site designs and research survey: http://www.marketingsherpa.com/socrates/study.html
Alexa traffic data on Socrates.com:
Acxiom - the data provider Socrates used to append demographic info to their customer masterfile:
SurveyMonkey - the low-cost online surveying tool Socrates uses to run monthly customer surveys for product development: