Big Al’s Bets Big On Content

Jim Young

Big Al'sBig Al’s is big in Canada. The Canadian aquatics-focused pet and pet supplies retailer has 15 big (emphasis on “big”) box stores or Supercentres in Ontario and Alberta.

“We see ourselves as the industry leader in Canada,” said Chris Parsons, Big Al’s Omni-Channel Strategist.

But things get trickier when it comes to the enormous, lucrative market to the south.

The good news for Big Al’s is there really isn’t a US company with a similar profile – a big box retailer with a strong focus on the aquatics portion of the pet industry. That economy of scale enables Big Al’s to offer online prices that can edge out smaller aquatics retailers.

“For us, the question is how do we acquire customers faster?” Parsons said. “Our proposition is unbeatable.”

But how can they acquire those US customers without the household name status that Big Al’s enjoys in Canada? It’s a problem many companies face when trying to expand their online businesses beyond the home turf of their brick-and-mortar stores.

The answer, according to Parsons and his staff, is content marketing. The idea is to produce and distribute content that showcases the aquatics expertise of Big Al’s. It’s not the hard sell approach of conventional advertising. Rather, Big Al’s is aiming to provide useful information to aquatics enthusiasts, starting a long-term relationship that eventually turns them into loyal customers.

Want to know how to set up a saltwater aquarium? Or how to use plastic plants to create a natural look in your aquarium? Curious about how to give a bearded dragon a bath? (Or for that matter, what a bearded dragon is?)

Big Al’s has been dispensing all those answers and more, often via popular videos hosted by company aquatics expert Thomas Burton, but also via the company blog and Big Al’s share/Rwardz forum.

“Part of the reason we changed our tagline to ‘Bring us home’ is that we want new and existing customers to know that they’re not just bringing our pets home, they’re bringing our expertise home as well,” Parsons said.

Big Al’s has been proactive about engaging with customers online, participating in various forums, providing products for events, and offering up guest speakers. They’ve also generated content via the #AskAl hashtag on social media – responding to customer queries with blog posts, videos, and sometimes phone calls.

“We focus on high quality content, knowing that if people are engaged and searching for this hobby, they’ll find our content and, over time, we’ll build up a strong community,” Parsons said. “We truly believe that once we develop this following, it will drive commerce.”

Big Al’s started this content marketing approach about eight months ago, and it’s beginning to bear financial fruit. Exhibit A is the video Burton made on how to set up an aquarium using plastics plants. Big Al’s sent out the video in an email to its customer list, with links to all the products featured in the video. Those links are also beneath the video on Big Al’s YouTube page. According to Parsons, the video “skyrocketed” sales of plastic plants, with some customers buying every single item (over 20) featured in the video.

Now that Big Al’s content production is rolling, they’re looking at highly targeted ways to deliver all that useful information to customers via email. A pet’s birthday, the number of pets the customer has, the different categories the customer shops in – it’s all data Big Al’s is gathering and figuring out how to leverage.

Just as valuable though, is the brand awareness that’s being spread by word of mouth.

“You start to see results because people are becoming advocates of Big Al’s,” Parsons said. “Instead of us pushing our brand and telling people how great we are, our customers are talking for us.”

They’re doing that talking now because Big Al’s started the conversation by offering up useful content, not just a sales pitch. That content marketing approach has helped Big Al’s make a name for itself in the US and the revenue is starting to follow. It’s a lesson worth learning for any company looking to build brand recognition and customer loyalty in new markets.