Pictured Above: Sosler's Garden & Farm Equipment recently celebrated its 65th year in business.

The email subject line read: “Free Yeti Cooler with Tractor Purchase!” It was compelling enough to entice me to open and see the holiday promotion from Sosler’s Garden & Farm Equipment — and to follow up with the dealership to learn more about their online marketing program.

Sosler’s Garden & Farm Equipment, located in New Hampton, N.Y., is celebrating its 65th year as a family-owned and operated outdoor power equipment dealership. The dealership’s main brands include Massey Ferguson, Ferris, Snapper, Simplicity, Echo and Woods Equipment. Ray Sosler III, the third generation in the family business, explains their email marketing program and the impact it is having on their dealership.

Ray Sosler III and Ray Sosler Jr. are part of the family ownership of Sosler’s Garden & Farm Equipment, New Hampton, N.Y.

Rural Lifestyle Dealer: You’re located just an hour from New York City. Can you explain about your market and customer base?

Ray Sosler III: My grandfather started the business in 1952. Back then, there were a lot of true agricultural customers, so we sold equipment based on that market. So much has changed since then in terms of land development. Farmers have moved further north and rural lifestyle customers now occupy vast amounts of former farmland.

About 50% of our customers are hobby farmers. About 25% make their living from agriculture. And, the rest of our customer base includes landscapers and others. We have a diverse mix of customers, such as a 200-acre deer farm in upstate New York. We also have a local hobby farmer who works construction in New York City and owns 5 acres of land to grow hops for brewing his own craft beer.

RLD: Why did you pursue email marketing?

Sosler: We’re celebrating our 65th year in business. That’s a milestone that represents a lot of pride for our family business. Sustainability is a true measure of how you’re doing and we’ve stayed in business for this long because we have been able to adapt and change.

As our customer base has become more diversified, we’ve had to find different ways to reach them. With small businesses, the question always is, ‘How do you get the word out?’ Six months ago, we learned about Signpost. (Signpost is a customer relationship management and marketing automation software company.)

They had two main “hooks” that got me interested. They offer online marketing campaigns via email and text message marketing. We have the ability to request feedback responses and referrals with testimonials. In addition, we also have access to an online dashboard for administering the programs and tracking the results. I decided to do the 6-month trial, which gave me enough time to “get my feet wet” with the program and become familiar with the process.

RLD: How does the program work?

Sosler: The initial set up fee is $199, but this fee is waived when you sign up for a 6-month trial program for $1,499. A 1-year program is available at a discounted rate of $2,499.

To develop the campaigns, we work with Signpost’s online dashboard. I come up with the ideas, like the Yeti cooler promotion, and build the email in their dashboard. My contacts, emails and texts, are loaded into their program.

The promotions can be sent to different customers based on the goal of the campaign, such as offering incentives to new customers, requesting referrals from existing customers, or encouraging reviews on Google+, Yelp and Facebook.

Initially, all of our existing email contacts were synched and automatically subscribed to the program. After receiving the first email, our contacts had the choice to either “continue receiving” or “unsubscribe” from any and all future email campaigns.

Phone numbers from our database were also brought into the system to use for text messaging campaigns. After the first text is sent, a customer must text “START” to a designated number to “opt-in” and continue receiving special offers and news.

Signpost has a customer support team available to answer questions, assist with campaigns and review dashboard statistics. The dashboard offers the ability to add notes to each customer record. In addition, we can also see how responsive customers are to the different campaigns they receive. For example, we can view the percentage of email campaigns a customer opens, along with the click-through rate for each specific campaign.

Sometimes, the emails are linked to other promotions we’re doing. For instance, we were collecting toys for Toys for Tots and I sent out an email blast for customers to come into the store to drop off a toy and get a free promo item.

RLD: How is the program working?

Sosler: The Yeti cooler campaign created a real “buzz.” Anything you can do these days to incentivize people to visit your store is a good thing. A recurring promotion we offer is to give a free gift, such as a hat, mug, t-shirt, koozie or pocket knife. A lot of our campaigns are trial and error. We try to go with what works and stay away from what doesn’t.

The challenging aspect about advertising is that it’s difficult to measure. With this program, however, I can see who has opened an email from a specific campaign. The speed to reach customers is almost instant and I’ll have customers call the same day the campaigns go out.

To compare, we sent out 2,000 post cards last summer, 500 at a time, and didn’t get much response. With an email blast sending the same information, I could see that about 60 people opened it or clicked through for more information. One of the email blasts we did was to ask our existing customers to post a review on Google+, Yelp and Facebook. We had over 50 customers take the time to post positive online reviews for us.

RLD: Can you comment on the challenges you’re facing in your market and how this marketing program is helping you cope?

Sosler: In today’s world, people are so busy, so just getting people into the store is a challenge. Within 25 miles of us, there are 5 Tractor Supply stores, 4 are open and one is being built.

The box stores erode what dealers bring to the table, our expertise, knowledge and experience. This has created a more difficult atmosphere for stand-alone, “brick and mortar,” family-owned equipment dealerships to make it. If you’re not able to change with the times, if you can’t evolve, you’re going to have to find something else to do.

RLD: What else do you think will help boost sales this year?

Sosler: I like to think about what “moves the needle.” Cordless power equipment is an emerging market, but we don’t see this segment making a huge impact on our business.

What moves the needle for us is innovation and value. For instance, Ferris offers the only line of zero-turn mowers with a patented and fully integrated suspension system. That is a statement about the company’s commitment to be the best. Customers recognize it and dealers can promote this as something that “moves the needle.”

Massey Ferguson has introduced several new series of tractors to their lineup, including the 1700E series compact tractors and the 2700E series compact utility tractors. These new models have been designed to directly compete with Kubota and John Deere. The Massey Ferguson models offer more power and quality features, at a better price point versus the competition. In a price-driven marketplace, that truly moves the needle.

In Part 2, Andrea Kayal, Signpost’s vice president of marketing, provides more strategies for online marketing.