Case Study: How a 91-Year-Old Company Got Its Groove Back

The following article was written by Leah Thayer for her site daily5Remodel. Please visit her site for more great content.

Before there was jubilation in the classrooms of one Baltimore school, and before there were more than 65,000 visits to the website of one Baltimore roofing company, there was concern that something radically different needed to happen to regain market share for that 91-year-old, family-owned business.

Here's a brief overview of how.

The Challenge

Cole Roofing, founded in 1919 and now in its fourth generation of family ownership, "never advertised a day" prior to about 10 years ago, when it became impossible to ignore a steady erosion of its long-held market share, said Bill Cole, a co-owner and great-grandson of the founder. New competitors were advertising and marketing heavily, whereas Cole Roofing was accustomed to essentially taking orders.

As Cole told us for this December d5R Snapshots feature, "Bids would come across the fax machine, and we'd estimate and send them back out." When it became clear those days had ended, "we had to do something."

The Plan

In 2009, after exploring and abandoning options for radio and newspaper advertising -- the costs were unjustifiable, Cole thought -- he hooked up with a small digital marketing agency called Airplane Corporation. Airplane principal Christian Childs proposed an idea: to give away a green roof, and to leverage social media to spread the word and elicit interest.

"Are you nuts?" reacted Cole, who is also president and co-owner of Pfister Energy, the family's renewable energy company. He initially resisted the idea, as did older members of his management team, even though the company had been installing green roofs since 2004 and wanted to do more.

"I was very pessimistic in the beginning, but [Childs] was right," Cole told us earlier this week. "Every roofer can talk about their safety, their quality, their cost, but social media really gives you a chance to build brand awareness and engagement."

Plus, he figured that every time somebody heard about or engaged with the giveaway, "they would associate a nice thing with Cole Roofing. Anyting that helps people see their roof as more than just a capital annoyance is good for our business."

"We both sort of just realized that you can buy print ads and radio spots, but is anybody really listening?" explained Childs in a phone call yesterday. "We saw social media as the only way to really make a meaningful connection with potential customers."

The Strategy

Almost all of Cole Roofing's work is on commercial properties, many of them owned by nonprofit organizations. The Green Roof Giveaway, as the campaign was branded, set out to "give back to our community and along the way educate them on the opportunities that cutting-edge roof systems give us to be green," Cole told us.

Specifically, the campaign invited Baltimore-area nonprofits to write an essay, as well as to create and upload a video to the newly created GRG YouTube channel making the case "for why your organization deserves the new roof."

Nominations would be accepted from September 15 through November 15, and a public vote would be held from November 16 through December 17. The nonprofit with the most votes would win the $5,000, and a committee was selected to evaluate all entries and select one winner for the actual green roof. The committee's criteria would be:

  • Power/ persuasiveness of argument
  • Creativity
  • Interest
  • Quality of presentation
  • Internet voting results
  • Merit of the organization

To promote the contest, a cross-platform social media campaign would encompass Cole Roofing's regular website and Twitter feed, along with a newly created Facebook page and dedicated GRG website -- which would have an active and well-written blog. Every piece would link to every other -- blog to sites, sites to Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, etc.

Nominees, it was hoped, would be sufficiently jazzed by the opportunity to promote GRG through their own social media as well.

Contest Results

By the time the window for nominations closed, there were 39 nominees. One was the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, which created this video.

Once the voting went live, "we thought things would take a while to catch on, but on the first day of voting we had 10,000 unique visitors to the website," Cole said. "Through the peak month of the contest we had 65,515 visits to our site with 319,785 page views and an average time on our site of nearly two and a half minutes."

Many of these visitors were from the Baltimore area, but collectively they came from all 50 states -- and 84 countries.

When the voting concluded, the most votes and $5,000 donation went to the Day's End Farm Horse Rescue (here is its nominating information). "I got a chance to tour the farm," Cole said. "What an awesome place. They told us they have over 1,600 volunteers! Talk about a loyal following."

For the actual green roof, the committee selected the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. "Their ability to show us in the video that they took the time to learn about green roofs essentially hit the nail on the head for what we wanted the contest to do," Cole said.

Installation of the school's new green roof is likely to begin this summer, but "we are very early in the planning stages," Cole said. "The school has formed a green team to work on this as well as other environmentally programs they can do.... They have some pretty interesting ideas that may slow us down. It is a process and everyone involved is committed to finding the right solution for the school and their roof."

Business Results

Aside from those 65,000 website hits, and the immeasurable collective goodwill spawned by the nonprofits' own voting campaigns, "the city has embraced the contest, the school and us," Cole said. "City Council President Jack Young wrote about the contest in his newsletter, the Baltimore City School System has a piece on their website and the National Coalition of Girls' Schools also included a piece on their site," with more media coverage expected to follow.

The "like" factor is also huge. As of February 1, 950 people have used Facebook to say they "like" the Green Roof Giveaway -- status updates that are visible to every one of their Facebook friends -- Cole Roofing's own Facebook page had indicated that they liked the company, and interaction on that page had grown by nearly 300 percent.

From his perspective as marketing consultant on the campaign, Christian Childs says GRG achieved the goal "establishing Cole Roofing as the regional leader in the green roofing space."

Highly targeted blog posts also galvanized the company's search ratings. "My prediction for the future of online marketing will be a focus on content," Childs said.

"We ran a social media campaign with Cole but we never tweeted out asking people what movies they saw over the weekend. We stuck to the campaign messaging and mission of helping nonprofits and educating people about sustainable roofing. Customers must be given value to engage with a brand and that's what we tried to do with the Green Roof Giveaway," via "educational value in the blog posts, entertainment value in the submitted videos and financial value for the winners.

"I think that the traction the campaign gained proved that people found value in these things and rewarded the brand with their engagement."

Budget and Takeaway

Ah yes, the budget. Without sharing actual dollar amounts, Cole noted that spending on the campaign was slightly more than he had alloted for marketing in the fiscal year, in large part because of the $30,000 cost of the actual green roof the company is giving away. "But the number of people I'm touching and the brand awareness I'm getting I would have never gotten" using conventional marketing, he said.

One advantage of social marketing, Childs noted, is that there are none (or few) of the media "placement" costs that come with advertising in the traditional media. That leaves more money and time for creative work, concept development and actual brand-outreach. And done right, he added, social media does something that traditional ads rarely do -- engage people by getting them to comment or share with a friend or cast a vote, or simply "like."

As for Cole:

"I decided to cut our marketing budget this year due to the success we are having in the social networking world. We are a commercial roof and renewable energy company so it didn’t seem to fit at first, but everyone we touch goes to work somewhere -- and for us it’s really about brand awareness. We want everyone to know that we are the roofer you should tell your friends about," he said.

Over the short term, "we are focused on completing this contest and teaching everyone about what we are doing." Will there be another contest? I would think so. The challenge is in creating a unique opportunity that makes people want to jump in and interact with it. Once we get the BLSYW green roof finished, we will open up the idea chest and see what we can come up with.

In the meantime, he offered this to other business owners in the construction sector:

"The social networking world is an excellent place to grow your business if you are willing to 'keep it real' and put in the time."


Here is a video of Bill Cole announcing to the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women that they are the winners of the Green Roof Giveaway.

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