Marketing Moves

The field is crowded, but digital marketing gives independents an unparalleled connection to the consumer.

There are many things brick-and-mortar shops have down cold. Getting consumers the proper fit and recommending the ideal shoe? That’s table stakes. Giving great customer service? Naturally. Grassroots involvement? 100 percent. But when it comes to getting the word out to the wider world with advertising and promotion, well for a lot of independents, that’s a puzzle without an easy solution.

Store owners say  it feels like there’s no playbook, just too many options and too little data on what’s proven to work.

“Whether it’s social or print or radio, you’re not going to get any results with a one and done [campaign], and it’s scary to put forth and spend,” laments Stephanie Blozy, owner of Fleet Feet Hartford. Committing to spending money and time when both are at a premium — and having to keep spending it — is daunting: “If we knew what was successful, more of us would feel more comfortable doing it,” she says.

But faced with an ever-increasing number of avenues to reach their customers — social media? Geo-targeted search engine ads? TV? Billboards? Local newspaper? Direct mail? — retailers told us that digital marketing is taking up a larger and larger share of ad spend.

“Traditional marketing is not effective for our scale of businesses,” says Chris Lampen-Crowell, owner of the five Gazelle Sports locations based in Kalamazoo, MI.

“In the last four years, we’ve made a slow shift from minimal digital to primarily digital,” agrees Scott Heidrich, director of strategic advertising and marketing for the six Lamey-Wellehan stores based in Maine.

With that in mind, we asked retailers which digital marketing elements have the greatest ROI. Here, independents sound off on the best ways they’ve found to connect with customers new and old.

Social Media

All of social media can get lumped together, but by and large, footwear independents say the two networks with the most engagement and best return on the effort expended are Facebook and Instagram, which serve complementary purposes.

“It’s two different strategies,” Lampen-Crowell says. “Facebook is really about helping us [talk about] events and things we’re doing in store, our partnerships and community engagement. Instagram is building the story of who we are.”

Telling a brand story, he adds, is an effective way to facilitate the most effective kind of advertising of all: word-of-mouth.

“Value alignment is important for all customers, but especially for millennials,” he says. “You need to build brand alignment; then that can become sales oriented. Word-of-mouth of engagement is massive.”

Christi Beth Adams, owner of the three Fleet Feet Nashville locations, believes in social media so strongly she hired Drive Social Media, a St. Louis and Nashville-based digital marketing firm, to oversee her social efforts on both channels. Adams says that her boosted posts on both channels (it’s absolutely essential to be paying to promote your key messages, she notes: “Organic posts are no longer a thing. Everyone needs to understand it’s very much pay to play”) are essential in getting in front of new customers — almost all social networks have tools you can use to select, by location, demographics, interests and more, exactly who should be seeing your posts and ads. Serving ads to people who resemble the people who already love the shop has been a strategy that she says has paid off.  As a channel, she says, “We do a really good job of talking to our existing customers, over and over, with the newsletter, Instagram, training programs, sponsoring a race. But those are people who have already opted in to your communications,” she says. “The question we need to ask is, ‘How are we talking to people who aren’t our existing customers?”

Building out Facebook and Instagram gives stores a chance to talk directly to consumers, and to give those consumers a chance to share their networks, too, says Lampen-Crowell.

“We used to make newspaper ad and radio ads, and we were just throwing things out there to people and hoping they locked on,” he says. “Social media is a person telling another person.”

Websites and Search Engines

If you’re looking to bring shoppers through your doors — especially the ones who don’t already know you — then making sure you’re present in their online searches is critical, stores say.

“We use specific ad words and we’re very focused on SEO [for our website]. We brought in an outside consultant to help us with that, and it brings eyeballs to our website,” Lampen-Crowell says. “We do sell online, but we know that more than 80 percent of the people who are coming onto our website are looking at us there and then coming in online.” In support of that, Lampen-Crowell says, they use geotargeting to make sure people searching in their area are seeing their ads. “We’re finding those people in our area who are likely to come in,” he says. “It’s a marketing tool, but you have to get them to the site. You definitely have to have a marketing spend around your website whether you’re selling online or not.”

And don’t neglect the power of your email list to speak to your existing customers. “We’re sending out more emails than in the past, and they’re more segmented,” Heidrich says.

Each message goes to a distinct group of shoppers, which avoids overwhelming them. “They’re really targeted — we’re not just blasting everyone,” he says.

Everything Else

Retailers say you really can get almost everybody (assuming you sit in an area with broadband access) online — even the older customers many assume aren’t as digitally savvy. But that doesn’t mean they’re not reinforcing their digital messages with other brand touchpoints, too.

Sonya Estes, the owner of Runners Roost in Lakewood, CO, says she and her team have put extra effort this year in connecting with local high school and collegiate running coaches, and in stocking the spikes and specialty goods they need to be a resource for them. And as older customers who once shopped the store for their kids’ track needs come back in looking for comfortable everyday styles, she says she’s working with her vendors who make the product that appeals to them like Altra, Brooks and Hoka One One to support outreach efforts to local medical practices with prescription pads and other promotional items.

Heidrich says Lamey-Wellehan has continued to insert flyers in the local paper, and some limited radio ads on the local radio station; Fleet Feet Nashville’s Adams says last year she worked with another local Fleet Feet franchisee to run a joint ad campaign on NPR. And while she doesn’t have any plans to repeat it this year, she’s glad she tried it.

“I don’t have a specific number of people who walked in the door because they heard it, but so many existing customers were like, ‘I heard the ad on NPR!,’” she says. “I think it’s important to try new things, and to just play with a little bit of the budget. Let yourself be surprised.”

Crowdsource will run in every issue of Footwear Insight, and we want to know: What’s on your mind? Whether it’s hiring and staffing, succession planning, or making sense of social media numbers, we’ll be diving into a new topic every issue, and we want to hear from you. Reach out at or @footwearinsight and let us know what you’d like to Crowdsource.