The year was 1995. Robert Keane, an American in Paris attending business school, started a company.
Like many startups, the company struggled at first.
It wasn’t until several years later that Keane hit upon a form of viral marketing that would make his brand famous.
Originally Keane’s company was in the direct-marketing catalog business. By 1999, though, the business model had evolved. Instead of a catalog business, it was now leveraging online technology for printing promotional products for customers.
As a way to drive sales, Keane’s company hit upon a stroke of viral marketing brilliance.
It began offering to print free business cards for customers.
Keane’s company, of course, was Vistaprint.
A Viral Marketing Case Study
The Vistaprint logo was printed on the back of each free card. That meant every time a card was handed out by a customer, that customer was also marketing Vistaprint at the same time.
The free cards were so successful that eventually Vistaprint came to be known as the “free business card” company.
Back then, the free business cards concept was revolutionary. The viral marketing technique was launched a decade before Chris Anderson published his book “Free: The Future of a Radical Price.”
Free cards were so unusual they got people talking.
More importantly, the concept solved a problem faced by microbusinesses.
Reflecting back to the early years, Keane (pictured) said in an interview:
“At the time, full-color business cards were selling online for $85, and $200 – $300 at traditional printers. We gave them away free with a $5 shipping and handling fee. That offer was so successful in getting people to try us that it became an acquisition engine that drove our business. Our business model got to scale very quickly.”
And he wasn’t kidding about scaling quickly.
After introducing free business cards, Vistaprint grew at a staggering rate.
Within six years, Vistaprint went public and the stock began trading publicly (NASDAQ:CMPR).
Last fiscal year its sales exceeded $1.2 billion. Today, Vistaprint has 16 million customers.
The Unintended Consequences of Success
Vistaprint has printed billions of those free business cards.
As successful as the free business card offer was, eventually Vistaprint realized it had become a victim of its own success.
The marketing technique that made it a household name among microbusinesses had two unintended effects.
First, Vistaprint executives grew concerned that the free cards offer would devalue the quality of its entire product line in the customer’s eyes.
Free cards often are used by startup entrepreneurs just getting into business. The cards are nearly risk free for budding entrepreneurs, because they involve only a small shipping cost.
But if you’re trying to convey an image of a successful small business around for the long haul, eventually you graduate from free cards, say experts.
“Free business cards with the printer’s name and logo on the back are accepted as good ‘starter cards’ for new entrepreneurs on tight budgets,” says Gail Gardner, small business marketing strategist at GrowMap. “They serve a valuable purpose. But I always advise business owners to upgrade to a higher quality business card when your budget allows,” she adds.
Yet, with the Vistaprint name synonymous with “free business cards,” executives were concerned that microbusiness owners might simply assume it didn’t offer higher quality effects, such as thick card stock or glossy finishes.
The second issue facing the company was lack of awareness of its other products.
The business cards were so well known, they overshadowed other products. Some microbusiness owners had no idea Vistaprint offered a wide range of other products — from email marketing to imprinted T-shirts and hats.
Vistaprint was in danger of becoming pigeonholed.
Investing in the Customer Experience
Fast forward to today. Vistaprint has undergone a transformation.
“We’ve been investing heavily in the past three years in the customer experience,” said Lauren Zirilli, Vistaprint’s Director of Global Brand Strategy, in an interview with us here at Small Business Trends.
“This includes customer service, overall site experience, product quality, printing quality, range of products, design experience on the website, designs on offer. We’ve spent millions and millions of dollars evolving the experience for customers,” Zirilli said.
The company also decided that although the free business card model had contributed to the overwhelming success of the company, it was time to scale it back.
Zirilli emphasized how “extremely successful” the free business cards were for Vistaprint. And the company doesn’t regret giving away billions of cards for free, either.
Still, she acknowledged, that free offer created a major marketing challenge. People came to view free cards as a product, instead of an introductory marketing offer.
“Our experience with ‘free’ may be a useful example to business owners for their own marketing,” offered Zirilli.
Her advice to small business owners? “Free is a great marketing tactic but it should be used sparingly. You don’t want to paint yourself into a hole where you’re always having to give your product away for free.”
Marketing expert Ivana Taylor of DIY Marketers concurs with Zirilli’s advice. “In your own business, look at giving away products or services for free as a great way to get attention. Think of it as getting people to try before they buy.”
But, Taylor adds, the goal is ultimately to get your customers to buy. “Create a funnel or stair-stepped series of offers to move your customer from the free incentive, toward your regular products and services,” Taylor advises.
As for those free Vistaprint cards, they will still be available from time to time, Zirilli assured us, but not all the time.
“We want to develop relationships to serve business owners’ needs over the long term, not a one-time transaction,” Zirilli added.
Vistaprint continues to offer promotions that allow owners to try a range of its products. One example is a rewards program called Vistaprint Cash, where shoppers earn cash credits towards future purchases.
More emphasis is being placed on the quality Vistaprint is capable of. Vistaprint business cards can be ordered with ultra-thick stock, raised print, metallic print (see example pictured below), various kinds of paper, and various card sizes and shapes.
Vistaprint also has raised the profile for its products other than business cards. Apart from the usual fare of letterhead, envelopes, address labels, postcards and flyers, Vistaprint has expanded into a dizzying range of products including hosted websites, clothing, signs and banners.
Vistaprint was an early pioneer in the online printing space with a website that started back in 2000. The company has invested in continuous upgrades to that website, to make it easy for non-designers to do online design with a minimal learning curve, said Zirilli.
Everything on the site, from the designs to the underlying software programs, was created in-house. Vistaprint employs hundreds of professional graphic designers, said Zirilli.
That’s also the reason Vistaprint can offer more than “do-it-yourself” options.
The company also offers design services for those who want a custom design.
Today, Vistaprint will help business owners create a business card design, upgrade or edit an existing design project, or create new design projects from scratch, at project fees starting from $5.00, on up.
Being Clear on Your Target Market Pays Off
Zirilli added another piece of advice for business owners. Have a clear vision of your market and who you’re serving, she advises. By being precise in defining your target market, even if it means a narrower market, you’ll serve them better.
Vistaprint serves individuals and the very small end of small business — what the company terms “the microbusiness.” It defines a microbusiness as a business with one to 10 people working in it.
Zirilli emphasized that this is the market they have been focused on since day one. All products and services are designed specifically for individuals and very small businesses having limited or no in-house technology, marketing or design staff.
Along with having a narrow market focus, Vistaprint is able to do customization on a massive scale, fulfilling an eye-watering 30 million orders last year. Yet each order was printed to the customer’s specifications.
What makes it possible is technology innovation.
“Many people think of Vistaprint as a printing company but in reality we are a technology and marketing company. That’s really what drives us,” added Zirilli.
Images: Vistaprint; Small Business Trends