How a swimming pool installation company in rural Virginia saved their business with content marketing

by Feb 13, 2017Case Study, Promotion, Strategy, Uncategorized, Writing

A spectacular turnaround story, River Pools and Spas (RPS) in Warsaw, VA (USA) is a thing of legends in the Content Marketing community, not least because of how unlikely it sounds: A company digging holes and installing swimming pools as the shining example of writing blog posts and e-books, written about in the New York Times and profiled in books about content marketing? Go on – tell me more.

In 2009, during the Great Recession, swimming pools were one of the first things that affluent American homeowners cut back on.

But not only was demand for new pools tanking, customers even wanted their deposits returned – i.e. business that the company had thought to be “in the bag” suddenly vanished retroactively! This suffocated the company of cash.

At $4 million annual revenue, River Pools and Spas were spending $250k per year on outbound marketing. Out of four competitors in the region, they were the smallest.

The only way to stay afloat in a shrinking market is to steal market share. But how to do that with a dwindling cash balance? CEO Marcus Sheridan discovered content marketing (he prefers the term “inbound marketing” – I’m discussing here why I prefer “content”). He read the success stories (unsuspecting that one day he would become one of the most famous ones) and decided he would give it a try. He started a blog on the company website which previously had served merely as a virtual shop front.

Marcus Sheridan, then CEO of River Pools and Spas

Just don’t take the laptop into the pool. (Source: NY Times)

Blogging, Sheridan thought, would kill not two but three birds with one stone:

    1) It’s free, and if it worked he would be able cut back on his marketing spend
    2) It would differentiate him from his competitors
    3) It would make use of his spare time given flagging demand

But what to write about?
It soon became clear that the best topic to cover would be all the questions people had about swimming pools. And there were many. A swimming pool is a huge expenditure and buyers have a lot of questions before committing: What are the pros and cons of fiberglass pools? What is the installation process? How do fiberglass pools stack up against concrete pools? What is the yearly maintenance cost of a swimming pool?

Sheridan simply started writing answers to the most frequent questions that customers asked him on a regular basis. He thought: “If they ask me in person, they’ll also be googling it.” And at the time, there was no other company that publicly answered customers’ questions on these topics. Either they didn’t think it was important enough or they considered this information to be too valuable to simply give away.

Only Marcus Sheridan wasn’t simply “giving” his information “away”.
He collected readers’ email addresses, observed which of his emails his subscribers were reading, optimised email subject lines to grow email open rates, alternated content emails with salesy ones … and started counting as the dollar bills were piling up. By 2011, two years after his decision to go all out on content marketing, River Pool and Spas was selling more fiberglass pools than any other company in North America. And yes, you read that right.

These days, the company continues doing well and has a readership of 200,000 monthly visits during the summer months – truly extraordinary for what used to be a mere shopfront of a high-end product company.

What lessons can we learn from this story?

1. Evergreen content wins
Questions around swimming pools don’t change much over the years. Barring some high-tech breakthroughs that make pools magically install and fill themselves, people will still be asking about pros and cons, cost, duration etc. Answer their questions and you’re half-way there. Evergreen content is also one of the secrets behind Tim Ferriss’ huge success as a blogger and even more so as a podcaster.

2. Giving is receiving
Sheridan made great use of one of the cornerstones of persuasion: Reciprocity. Robert Cialdini describes in his seminal book Influence how Hare Krishna followers soliciting donations in an airport dramatically improved their results by giving strangers a flower first. Even if it was unsolicited, value had been transferred, people’s urge to reciprocate kicked in and off they went and handed over a few dollars (in this case, surely not without a dash of resentment).

In his e-book, Sheridan recounts a story of a customer who had been reading his blog and, while in his office, said that she would now check out competitors’ offers. Ever the sales shark, Sheridan told her that she could of course do that. But given that he had been giving her (as she herself said) trustworthy information on the topic of pool installation, would she be able to trust his competitors as much as him? The customer turned on a dime and signed on the dotted line. Sometimes reciprocity needs a little nudge.

When people receive value from you, they remember. Like with the friend on Facebook who regularly posts interesting observations or links to thoughtful articles, we accumulate molecules of gratitude which end up amounting to an overall positive feeling about that person. In contrast, all the image-building, humblebragging, selfie-posting bores slowly develop into full-blown morons in our mind’s eye.

In business, it works the same way. If you are genuinely helpful, and what you write is well thought through, people will remember and recommend you, even if they aren’t customers themselves. And if, one day, they do become interested in buying your product… guess which provider they will see in a more favourable light? The company whose ads clutter their Facebook feed and keep them from watching YouTube clips? Or the company that generously gave them free advice in their area of expertise?

3. Talk about competitors and products you don’t offer
Sheridan advocates reviewing one’s competitors which is something that most other companies would balk at and would consider crazy: Why draw attention to competitors?
Well, it’s an easy decision if your mindset is to give customers what they want. And customers want to see comparisons between companies. Do you really think that customers buying a swimming pool would not look at alternative offers? Customers are well informed. And you show that you have their best interest in mind by giving them what they want. Because they will remember they got this information from you.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to convert readers into customers. Go ahead, show them all the email harvesting pop-overs you want and send them finely targeted conversion emails. But banking on customers’ ignorance about your competitors is not a viable long-term strategy.

This philosophy is also why Amazon shows links to competitors’ sites at the end of their product listings:
Why would they do this? Well, if you arrive at the end of the page and indicate that you didn’t find what you were looking for – how likely are you going to convert with Amazon? Most likely you are on your way out. So Amazon collects a little token from another seller for passing you on to them.

“Well, at least they make money from passing the buyer on!” you may say. This is true. Marcus Sheridan could as well plant some affiliate links in his competitors’ reviews. But this is not how the swimming pool industry works, so in the meantime he’s not making any currency off his competitor reviews other than readers’ goodwill. And that’s worth money in the long run.

The Upshot and the Inspiration

Marcus Sheridan’s story was one of my earliest inspirations to get into Content Marketing. His radical approach to honesty towards customers and long-term thinking are at the core of the Kontent360 business philosophy.


Further sources:
Joe Pulizzi: Epic Content Marketing

Check out a 4 minute video to learn more about the turnaround story of the company

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