Cover Story: Weird Science
Steve Spangler has managed to make science cool … and at the same time earn a living. For the teacher turned retailer, the focus has remained the same: to educate kids, particularly about science. And if that means turning bottles of Diet Coke into erupting geysers in the process, all the better.
Founded in 1990, Steve Spangler Science is the offshoot of a man's lifelong obsession with science. After 11 years as a science teacher, Spangler shifted directions. He decided to bring his passion for science to a wider audience, and a mail order catalog offering educational toys and science-related products was born.
Web Opens New Market
What started as a B-to-B catalog targeting teachers, Steve Spangler Science has evolved into a hybrid B-to-B/ B-to-C retailer offering products via catalogs, an e-commerce site, a wholesale division and various other channels, including trade shows. The emergence of the internet proved a watershed moment for the previously catalog-centric merchant.
Unable to substantially grow its business via catalog prospecting alone — the costs were too prohibitive — Steve Spangler Science launched its first website in 2000. Up to that point, the company had marketed its products to teachers only. Little did it know a whole market was left untapped.
"Pre-internet, we had people who wanted to meet with us and handle catalog distribution," recalls Steve Spangler, the company's founder and namesake. "They wanted us to ramp up catalog prospecting to see if there were other people out there who wanted this besides teachers. But it was just too expensive for a little company like ours. We decided the real focus had to be online. Once we went online, we found that our market wasn't just limited to teachers."
This epiphany didn't solve all the company's problems. All of its marketing efforts, in particular its catalog and website, were geared to teachers. So it brought in outside consultants to revamp the website in 2003 with a more consumer-friendly look and feel that included significant search engine optimization (SEO) and analytics upgrades. Soon Steve Spangler Science discovered its appeal extended beyond teachers.
"Someone said, 'I'd love this for my kids, but I'm not a teacher. Do you have to be a teacher to be on the site?'" Spangler recalls. "As soon as we heard that, we knew our marketing was completely wrong. The message we were conveying was that the brand was only for teachers. Once we got out of that mind-set and said, 'This isn't just for teachers,' the entire market opened up."
SEO Powers Web Growth
Taking advantage of the unique products and free content it offers, Steve Spangler Science has optimized its website for search engines. This process started at the beginning, with all pages of the site (homepage, product, category, subcategory) addressed. Keywords were analyzed and added, Spangler started a regular blog, and videos featuring Spangler conducting wacky science experiments were added, among other things.
Referring to them as "link baiting" campaigns, Steve Spangler Science offers interesting and engaging content that other bloggers, journalists and webmasters frequently link to, helping drive up the company's rankings. For example, Steve Spangler Science created a widget for its Science Experiment of the Week, a free newsletter sent to subscribers with a new science experiment showcased each week. The widget has been viewed nearly 750,000 times, which builds brand awareness, traffic and links.
A recent test of Google revealed that Steve Spangler Science ranked No. 1 for "science experiments," No. 2 for "science experiment" and No. 4 for "science toys."
"To a large extent, SEO has been the engine powering the company's online growth," says Stephan Spencer, vice president of SEO strategies for Covario, who's worked extensively with Steve Spangler Science to develop its site. "A top ranking in Google's organic listings acts like an implied endorsement from Google. It gives searchers the impression that Steve Spangler Science is in the same league as companies 10 times larger."
All Things Social
In addition to all of the work it's put into search engine optimization, Steve Spangler Science hasn't forgotten about social media. Central to its social media strategy is Spangler's blog. An early participant in the blogosphere, Spangler began documenting his take on science with a blog in 2003 … albeit unwillingly.
Fortunately, he listened to others around him at the time — most notably Spencer — and now Spangler considers his blog to be "the best marketing tool that we could ever have." The company tracks consumers who frequent the blog, then head directly to the e-commerce site to make purchases, a surprisingly high number.
"Twelve percent to 13 percent of our overall online revenue is generated from the blog," says Spangler, "which is probably 11 percent higher than it should be. But we're in a unique situation: We think with our metrics that they're actually finding posts that have something to do with what they're looking at. Then they're jumping over and buying. There's a number of assumptions that have to go into those kinds of statistics, but it was enough for me to continue to blog."
Spangler's blog serves as the company's social media hub, but it's active in other hot spots as well. Its YouTube channel provides video of various science experiments Spangler has conducted (roughly 400 of them, at last count), and it engages in conversations with consumers on Facebook and Twitter.
Steve Spangler Science is also well-represented on television. Spangler has parlayed his wacky and fun science experiments into several guest appearances on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," as well as working at the NBC affiliate in Denver for the past 20 years. And if that's not enough exposure, Spangler is a sought-after speaker on the trade show/conference circuit.
"With all of these touchpoints sitting out there, we have to be very careful that we're not trying to dominate the conversation," says Spangler. "We're just engaged in the conversation; we're allowing our customers to interact with us in a different way. Years ago it used to be a letter and a phone call, then it was an email, and now people have a live person and everything else. We sometimes find out about an issue with a product on Twitter before somebody ever picks up the phone and calls us."
The next social media endeavors Steve Spangler Science is tackling include science-related mobile phone apps, Facebook apps and widgets.
Despite its products overwhelmingly ending up in the hands of kids, Steve Spangler Science has made a concerted effort to market only to adults. Its website, catalogs and other marketing campaigns are geared to the teachers, parents and science enthusiasts making purchases, not the children ultimately using the products. And in some respects, the company believes this has helped attract more kids to the brand.
While not openly marketing to kids, that doesn't mean Steve Spangler Science isn't listening to them. Company representatives, dubbed "Spangler Science Ambassadors," visited 65,000 students in 120 schools last year, sharing the science experiments featured on its website in person. The feedback gathered at these events and teacher conferences helps the company better serve its customers going forward. In particular, customer feedback helps in product development.
"We don't want to lose the fact that we're out there to engage in the conversation, not to just sell stuff," Spangler says. "If our brand's visible, consumers are going to go over to the site and buy."