Practical Ecommerce

Quick Query: SoundsTrue.com Sells Educational Products in Multiple Formats

Sounds True is a Colorado-based provider of products and services to enable spiritual development. It was founded in the 1980s, and its business model is both interesting and sophisticated. It sells products via wholesale channels; it publishes a catalog; it offers online courses; and it has an ecommerce site with a custom platform that sells both physical and digital products. The web manager of Sounds True is Theresa Fox and she joined us recently to discuss it.

PeC: What does Sounds True sell online?

Theresa Fox

Theresa Fox

Theresa Fox: “Sounds True is a spiritual book publishing company and we primarily emphasize audio books, which is a bit different than books on tape. We also have DVDs, we have physical books and we do online courses and live events.”

PeC: Roughly how many products are on the site?

Fox: “We have several hundred different titles and they are available in multiple formats; so, it may be available as a CD and also as a digital download.”

PeC: What percentage of Sounds True revenue comes from ecommerce activities?

Fox: “Our company is about 60 percent trade business (meaning that our products are sold at stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders), and about 40 percent is direct. Of the direct business, 50 percent is through the website and 50 percent is through our catalog sales operation.”

PeC: Did the catalog sales came first and then the website?

Fox: “That’s right. We’ve been in business for 25 years and the catalog has been around for most of that time. Originally, we had a Yahoo! store for several years, and then a little over a year-and-a-half ago, we brought that functionality in-house and built our own custom platform for ecommerce.”

PeC: How do you market your ecommerce products on the web?

Fox: “We use a multi-channel approach. We market using our physical catalog, which we also send to people online and refer to products that are only available digitally. We use email marketing pretty extensively; we do web-based promotions; we have relationships with affiliate programs; we do paid search; and we focus on doing SEO activities, all of which drive business to the website.”

PeC: How often do you send out an email, and what sort of emails do you send?

Fox: “We use MailChimp. Four times a year, we send out an email that addresses specific products that we have excess stock of in the warehouse.

“Once a month, we send an announcement telling people all the new products that have just been added since the previous month. Additionally, we’ll send out specialties, promotions around specific products, and sometimes individual pieces, for a new product that has launched that we think is unique and of great interest.

“We send out articles and interviews with authors. It’s not necessarily just based on trying to sell a particular product at that time. We try to make sure that there are things on our email program that are of value even when recipients are not shopping.”

PeC: Which search engines do you use for pay-per-click (PPC) advertising?

Fox: “Google and Yahoo! are primarily what we focus on at this point. We’re really excited about our PPC program. It’s been working very well for us.

“We’re just doing a little bit of testing with Bing. We haven’t seen significant numbers yet in terms to the adoption of Bing, but we are starting to test in there.”

PeC: How are audio books delivered to customers?

Fox: “As you ‘walk through’ our website, the shopping experience is fairly typical. What is unique is that we combine the digital and the hard goods version of the same product together. Our downloads are co-mingled with our physical goods and you can see the price difference, and you can see the two prices side by side.

“To select the download version, there’s simply a line with the digital download ‘add to cart.’ Once you’ve completed a one-page checkout, you enter in your credit card information and your address information. At that point, there is a button on the confirmation page that puts you into the digital library, which is where you can access not only digital downloads, but it’s also the entry point into our online courses and events.

“We also sell things like live interaction with authors where there’s a chance to ask the authors questions. To purchase those, you would go to the same digital library to see where your product has landed and it will give you instructions as to how to access the online course or the live event, or put you in a screen where you can start downloading your digital product.”

PeC: How are physical products delivered to customers?

Fox: “We have our own warehouse and handle the shipping ourselves. We use FedEx. We also use SmartPost, which is FedEx-run on our end, but then transfers to the U.S. Postal Service for delivery. For international shipping, we sometimes use other choices as well.

PeC: Tell us about some of the successes your ecommerce business has experienced.

Fox: “One of the things that we’re most proud of is being able to have the digital products and the hard goods listed together on the product page, because that’s very rare.

“We’re also very proud of the one-page checkout. We built our website off of a shopping cart called KonaKart and modified it significantly to go down from about a five-page checkout into a one-page checkout, and it significantly reduced our abandonment of the cart.

“Also, we have a co-branding project that’s just rolling out now that has enabled a lot of partner sites to sell Sounds True products through their site by basically pasting in a line-and-a-half of code on to a blank page. It makes all the functionality of Sounds True available to partners. It links people into our shopping experience through a page that still feels like you’re on the partner’s website while you’re shopping.”

PeC: Any decisions that you’ve made that you wished you would have done differently?

Fox: “One of the things that we’ve recently realized is that, rather than maintaining all our own hardware and physical equipment here, it just makes sense to have it in the cloud. So, we’ve got a project right to have most of our hardware maintained through an Amazon cloud, that has an opportunity to save us quite a bit in terms of hardware cost and constantly having to purchase additional equipment.”

PeC: Do you have a social media strategy?

Fox: “Yes. We offer forums as part of our courses, for example, where customers can speak with each other or to engage with the authors sometimes. We’re looking at really rolling that out in a broader sense, and adding subscriptions and memberships in various types of clubs that enable people really to interact with us more directly, and interact with our authors and with each other.”

PeC: Anything else on your mind for our readers?

Fox: “I think one of the really important initiatives that companies should take very seriously is their SEO strategy. It is important to maximize the way that you designed your site so that you get the most natural search boost that you can.

“One of the things we did for search engine optimization is we launched some sites that are just content rich, free information, with tons of audio clips to listen to, and samples, and a lot of text. Each of those are entry points where search engines will find us because we have so much content that’s available, that’s deeply meaningful and then links back into our [home page]. I think strategies like that can be very valuable, especially if you don’t have a large budget for paid search.”

Practical Ecommerce

Practical Ecommerce

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