The Company: Yongin Martial Arts, Naperville, Ill.
The Entrepreneur: Ann Sullivan
Background: Sullivan opened her martial-arts school in 1995 because she wanted to share her passion for the discipline's ability to instill exuberance and self-confidence. Her approach differed from the norm, however. Founded around the theme of families training together, her school takes a gentler approach to traditional combat training.
The Challenge: Because Yongin was one of many martial-arts outfits in the area, it faced a double challenge: How to stand out from the crowd and change public perceptions that training in Tae Kwon Do and Hap Ki Do was strictly for combat or self-defense.
The Solution: Employ a "viral marketing" strategy. "We knew that our focus should be local because word of mouth is strong, and we wanted people to come by and see how we were really different," says Sullivan, who bought ads in community newsletters and initiated a very successful effort to have existing students recruit their friends. Any enrollee who brings in a new student receives "Yongin money" good for the purchase of studio merchandise such as T-shirts, jackets, and decorative patches. Not only did the concept keep expenses low, it helped the marketing effort as more Yongin logos started appearing in the local marketplace.
Sullivan also put together packages for prospective students, offering a free uniform with a certain amount of classes, and a "buy one class, get one free" deal. "Free isn't always best because people don't see its value," Sullivan explains. "We found that with a small [student] investment, the return was much greater." She also has leveraged her expertise by writing for martial-arts magazines and being featured on the local CBS, ABC and NBC stations, Oprah, and radio.
The Result: Yongin, which has been growing steadily for eight years, recently doubled its floor space in order to accommodate more students and shorten waiting lists. Sullivan also sponsors classes at a local hospital and travels extensively to host special self-defense training classes.
The Expert Comments: "Yongin proves that successful marketing doesn't have to be expensive," notes Meg Goodman. "By doing a little homework in defining the marketplace, understanding the marketing challenge, and knowing what will resonate with a target audience, it has been able to both grow and prosper."
The time that Sullivan invested in her viral marketing efforts has been substantial, Goodman says, but the payback has been substantial. "While I always like to see a very systematic and measurable marketing plan, I get a kick out of how well Yongin has done simply by shooting from the hip," she says. Goodman has a warning for other entrepreneurs who decide to follow the same tack, however: When working without a formal marketing plan, always keep a watchful eye on costs and return.
Editor's note: If your marketing drive has put some runs on the board, here's your chance let us know all about send an e-mail to Karen E. Klein and tell us what you're doing. We will choose the most interesting submissions, interview the business owners, and have marketing expert Meg Goodman comment.