In order to maintain a personal connection with his clients, computer consultant Dennis Deery sends them cards several times a year. These aren't generic Christmas or thank-you cards; instead, Deery, who is also an accomplished photographer, mails out greetings that feature his shots of rural landscapes along with personalized messages inside. "As a one-man operation, one of the biggest things that I can provide is personal service," he says. "People know who they are dealing with, and I use cards to build on that."
Deery, based in Menomonie, Wis., used to create and print the greetings himself, using stock cards, a desktop software program, and an inkjet printer. But the effort involved in customizing and sending 300 to 400 cards a year was labor intensive. Moreover, the quality of the finished product was less than desired.
Three years ago, Deery began using the online services of Cardstore.com to make and deliver paper cards to his client base. "It's incredible," he says. "It takes me about five minutes to upload, and the quality of the output looks professional. I've had a number of people express surprise. They thought I had sent them a card from Hallmark."
With the rise, ease, and popularity of digital cameras and Internet programs, more consumers have eschewed sending traditional cards in favor of using online card services to send good wishes on special occasions. Indeed, industry giants Hallmark and American Greetings (AM) as well as smaller outfits such as Salt Lake City-based Send Out Cards now allow customers to write and send paper greetings using the Web.
The advent of online greeting card services has also presented an opportunity for small businesses to go that extra mile with their own customers. Many outfits use them as an affordable and convenient marketing tool to send thanks, news, and invitations. "We automate client relationships and make it easy for them to stay in touch in a very high quality way," says Al Hulvey, CEO of Cardstore.com, based in Emeryville, Calif.
"I don't advertise," says Deery. "My work is word of mouth, and the cards definitely lead to referrals. If something comes up I'm at the front of their minds."
BRINGING PAPER ONLINE.
While the overall market for online paper greeting cards is still only a fraction of the $7.5 billion greeting-card market, according to the Greeting Card Assn., a Washington, D.C. trade group, the online greeting card segment is growing.
Cardstore.com is the consumer division of Touchpoint, a provider of personalized direct marketing and services. Touchpoint operates other online card stores, including usps.com/cardstore and custom Web sites for such large corporate clients as American Express (AXP), Macy's (FD), and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). But when the company noticed a surge in small businesses wanting to use its services, management realized that the enterprise service in place was too big and bulky to suit the needs of small businesses.
So in November Touchpoint relaunched Cardstore.com in order to offer a quick, efficient, and affordable way for small businesses to create cards. It incorporated new features, such as more efficient address book uploads and more card selections. Within minutes, a customer can select from more than 2,000 different cards, choose an image, write a message, and send 10 cards or 1,000 cards with a turnaround time of one business day.
Images can be selected from Cardstore.com's own collection or users can upload their own digital photos. And Cardstore.com prints, addresses, stamps, and mails the cards.
Since spinning off Cardstore.com, Touchpoint says its consumer business has grown 50%. The firm also reports that between April and November of this year, the number of small business users on the site has grown from 1,200 to 2,000.
According to Hulvey, Cardstore.com surveyed 1,000 small businesses that began sending out personalized cards and found that 30% reported a spike in business as a result. "The logic here is that no one will buy from you unless they remember you," says Hulvey. "You want to reach out and touch [clients] 6 to 12 times a year."
In fact, Cardstore.com says the number of occasions when small firms send cards has increased dramatically from one at Christmas to many throughout the year. Moreover, the ways in which small businesses are using the services of firms such as Cardstore.com to stay in touch with their clients are broadening.
For instance, Cardstore.com says that one of its customers, an immigration services outfit, sent out congratulation cards to all of its clients who successfully gained INS approval. And a wedding photographer created a set of cards using the pictures of a couple whose wedding he shot; he then resold the photos to the newlyweds, who used them as thank you notes.
Organic farmer Ellen Broadhurst, who runs the Reynard Ridge Farm in New Brunswick, N.J., with her husband, sends customized cards as a friendly marketing device. The photos feature various aspects of the farm, where one of the main products is maple syrup. Broadhurst says that in the spring she sends out cards to her high volume of core customers to remind them that maple season is here by depicting the maple grove.
"It's really invaluable," she says. "I don't see my customers, for the most part, so dropping a photo in the mail is a way to maintain the relationship without having to pick up the phone." Broadhurst says within the next five years, as the farm's business grows, she expects to use the cards as part of a larger direct-mail campaign.
Cardstore.com is expanding, as well. The company says going forward they will introduce a subscription service and increasingly automate other aspects of the process. "The point," says Hulvey, "is to move to a higher value-added business solution around the idea of quick and easy." That card is in the mail.