23 May 2024, 22:35
By Furniture News Mar 19, 2014

How Occa-Home's Kate Mooney built an online brand

Designer homewares etailer Occa Home has quickly become a leader in its field. Occa-Home.co.uk currently attracts nearly 200,000 visitors each month – around 40% of which are returning visitors, and 25% returning shoppers. Last year, the company attracted significant investment from retail financiers including former Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy, further accelerating its already-impressive growth. Amazingly, Occa Home’s founder and CEO Kate Mooney initially built the reputation and reach of the brand with next to no marketing budget – Paul Farley finds out more …

Occa Home’s roots are in architectural and interior design practice Occa Design, founded in 2003 and specialising in hotel design. This strong background in working with high-profile brands to furnish homes and hotels throughout the UK, Europe and the UAE led founder and CEO Kate Mooney to identify a consumer demand for the designer furniture and accessories seen in hotels, and launch Occa Home in 2010.

Much of the website’s growth is due to the marketing and PR Kate has carried out since its launch, and it’s this topic that our discussion will focus on – what low-cost marketing and PR techniques has Kate employed to build her brand, how might these be applied to other businesses, and what are the limitations?

How did you first approach digital marketing?

When we started the business we really immersed ourselves in learning all about digital, and we recognised quite quickly that there were key digital marketing channels that we had to understand if we were going to be serious players in the industry. Subsequently, rather than taking a ‘build it and they will come’ approach, we knew that we had to get the website out there in front of customers.

So, for the first year and a half, with no budgets, we did this within the existing design team by learning SEO, PPC and all about email marketing ourselves, bringing in some help from agencies from time to time to check what we were up to.

However, we soon recognised that it needed proper investment in the form of a dedicated and full-time marketing team that were passionate about Occa and what we were doing. Therefore, some of the first key appointments we made to the design team were for the digital marketing team.

“We didn’t start with a massive budget by any means – we didn’t take a wage for the first couple of years, and put in our pensions and all sorts of things up to fund it”

So your first suggestion would be to try to surround yourself with people that know what they’re doing?

Yes, or at least with people who are passionate and interested in doing the right thing for your business. It depends on the size of your company. If you’re a smaller independent shop owner, budgets can be tight, and a marketing team of any sort is a challenge – however, there is so much information available online, that you can pick up the basics. If you’re building a serious presence online, then I think a dedicated digital marketing team is key to achieving scale in your online presence and growth in your visitor numbers.

I speak to so many smaller retailers who set up a website and then get frustrated when no-one turns up. What many of them didn’t think about was the infrastructure that’s required to make sure your website turns up in the search engine results and that customers can find you over your competitors. Otherwise, it’s a bit like building a shop on the moon – it can be fabulous but nobody knows it’s there, and there’s no way to get there. If you are going to go online, then digital marketing, and being where your customers are, need to be an integral part of your concept and strategy from day one.

I guess that first off, you need to outline a very clear strategy, brand, USPs …

Definitely. When we had our first Occa-Home website built, we went to the guys that had worked with us on the Occa Design brochure site – it was a lovely portfolio site, all photographs and project information. The guys were great web designers, but hadn’t worked on many ecommerce sites previously.

However, what they did do was use their knowledge of our existing business, and their skills in developing design briefs to question everything we were doing, and they recommended that we build the site on Magento, which helped us really define our strategy – thinking about our search terms, price points and our customers in a way that we hadn’t covered as much as we might have initially.

What sort of questions did they ask?

They dug deep into our initial concept and questioned the scale of the audience. We had this ‘hotel chic’ thing in our heads and were very attached to that as being a big part of our concept, along with a vision of the lovely space that we wanted to be in. But, as they pointed out – quite rightly – at that point in time nobody searched for ‘hotel chic’ on Google – people searched for ‘discount furniture’, or ‘cheap chairs’, or quite specific brands instead, so while we definitely had a unique concept, it wasn’t going to do anything for us online unless we recognised some of the challenges.

So, SEO principles were taken into account very early on? It was a case of defining what you were offering in relation to what people are going to look for?

Yes, absolutely. Having a design agency with strong SEO experience at that stage certainly helped us. It made us look at what we were doing in a very different way, then reassess our strategy – and we did change some of the thoughts that we had about the way the business was going to go as a result.

“I’m thrilled that I could take a traditional architectural and interior design business into the unknown and untested online sphere and make it work”

What new directions emerged?

Based on all our hotel design heritage, we had started with lots of experience in designing and procuring furniture for hotels. So our initial concept was just that – bringing the hotel chic designer furniture to consumers who couldn’t access it anywhere else. With our background and experience, we planned to develop our own brand and market that too. But very quicky we realised that nobody knew ‘Occa-Home’ and no one was searching for it, so we then had to think about what kind of traffic we could get to a site like ours. And that’s where some of the ideas about working in conjunction with the designer furniture or similar brands we already worked with came in.

There were a number of brands that were well known in the hotel world that we then approached and asked about coming online with us. We determined that these brands, some of which were well recognised in interior design circles, were much more likely to be searched for than Occa-Home. That became the root of our brand strategy in the early days.

So, get your suppliers on board, utilise their expertise and see what tools they offer?

Well not quite – it was more a matter of identifying brands that suited our concept, were popular and well known, and then mixing these with the new designers we were keen to bring to our customers. Very few of our hotel brands had even thought about, much less understood, online when we started.

LSA International, however, was an early example of a brand that worked well for us. It was a brand that we worked with on the hotel design side of the business that supplied glassware, but it was also a brand that did well in a couple of department stores and therefore had visibility on the high street, so we made sure that we invested in it, spent time making a feature of it on the site. Then we started ranking for it on Google, and subsequently it started to bring us search traffic – visitors then started to discover everything else we sold too.

How important was SEO early on?

Crucial, and again I think that’s one of the issues that a lot of people face when they build a bespoke site – the architecture’s not always there to support a decent growth structure.

The advice we got to build the Occa-Home site on Magento was great. It was early days, but Magento has now become pretty much an industry-standard, open-source platform for small ecommerce businesses right up to much larger-scale ones.

We started on Magento Community, worked on Magento Professional for a while and are now on Magento Enterprise. Building on Magento and not a bespoke platform meant that we not only had a great shopping cart, but a lot of the search engine-friendly architecture that we needed was already there, and we just had to fill in the blanks that were specific to our business.

And the complexity, depth and layout of the site itself?

Our site is quite a complex offering now, mixing Magento Enterprise with a variety of other technologies, but for smaller businesses starting out, it’s really all about the product categorisation – if the journey’s difficult, if there’s too many steps, too many clicks, too many pages, consumers will not have the patience for it, and nor will Google!

Is there much that can be done  without calling in the experts?

Yes there is, and that’s what we did – we started the website at the beginning of the recession, at a time when the design industry as we’d known it was collapsing around us. Our clients couldn’t get funding, the construction industry was on its knees and no-one was building hotels. Our income stream had dramatically dropped over the previous 12 months. So we didn’t start with a massive budget by any means – we didn’t take a wage for the first couple of years, and put in our pensions and all sorts of things up to fund it. We had no choice but to work out a lot of this for ourselves.

So we were working, like a lot of people, on a shoestring to get it up and running. It took a lot of personal dedication and time to learn things like SEO and PPC and apply them to our site – they’re not difficult, you just have to be prepared to dedicate the time to learning and go for it … it needed to be done, and we didn’t have the money at that stage to blow it on external agents, so we had to do it ourselves if we were going to make an impact.

"There’s loads of learning resources there if you want to take it on, many of which are free"

Can you recommend any resources?

Yep, and they’re all online – that’s the wonder of the space we’re in. Between Google and YouTube it’s easy to find all sorts of seminars, classes and tutorials, there’s a huge resource online for people that want to get involved in learning about digital. There are courses that you can do, and there are lots of free video seminars on platforms such as Google Analytics that help you understand and measure what’s happening on your site – there’s loads of learning resources there if you want to take it on, many of which are free.

What sort of things should you do early on to begin promoting the site – basic marketing, such as social media?

We set up the blog from day one because we loved the idea of publishing content like a design magazine – but more importantly, because it helped establish the authority of the site with our customers, Google and the other search engines, and that’s an approach that becomes more important daily in terms of what the search engines expect from your site if they’re going to deliver your page on a customer’s search result.

Google’s main aim is to deliver the very best search result for the user, so having a blog, and having more content on the site, emphasising that you’re experts in interior design or furniture, is important. The more content that you have on your site that describes that product, that service, that benefit, the more likely Google is to find you and serve you as a result, as opposed to your competition.

Do you have any tips on how best to implement a blog? I’m guessing you wouldn’t want to make it too advertising led?

No. Notwithstanding the user experience, Google’s algorithms are serious business, and the poorer advertising-led or link farm-based blogs tend to now not rank nearly as well as they used to for key terms. Google’s coding is based on highlighting genuine and unique content that is completely relevant to the search query.

A lot of people tried to do ‘black hat’ SEO – they tried to trick the algorithms– and were devastated when they failed. I’m a great believer in being true to who you are and what you do. So if you’re genuinely good at what you do, if you’ve got a genuine proposition, with strong, unique content, it’s not difficult to have Google find you.

Some of the Google updates – Penguin, Hummingbird etc – have had a really negative impact on some businesses, predominantly because they weren’t actually doing what they said they were doing. There’s lots of different ways to work with Google, and it’s not difficult to do it well and get the best result for your business.

The other thing we did was offline marketing too, thinking about where our customer’s journey starts. For us, people love the glossy interiors magazines, and they start reading them when they’re thinking about refurbishing their home – so we believe it’s important to be where our customers are and work with the editors of these magazines to offer product placements and even have print ads to build our brand presence.

It’s about identifying all the different marketing channels that are out there and then deciding which ones are appropriate for your customers and business, the stage it’s at, the budgets that you’ve got and how you can really maximise them.

"There’s lots of different ways to work with Google, and it’s not difficult to do it well and get the best result for your business"

What was the biggest coup you had early on in publication terms?

Well, there were two lovely cases where the offline promotions worked really well for us. The prestigious Homes & Gardens magazine picked up on what we were doing early on and did a lovely one-page feature all about the website, and how much they loved it. Then the Financial Times’ 'How To Spend It’ magazine cottoned on to what we were doing too and featured the website both on and offline in its publications.

Moving on to social media, most people will have a fair understanding of the basics of some of the platforms, but which did you find were very effective in terms of the time invested?

Social media is – certainly initially, for us – mainly about PR and an extension of the brand experience. There are very few social media channels that are great sources of revenue for an ecommerce business such as ours, but, that said, if you’re going to play in this space you do need to work with them.

Facebook and Twitter are the obvious ones that everybody defaults to. For both it has taken us a bit of time to get the approach right – and I don’t know that we’ve even got it right yet. Like many new users we were guilty of broadcasting and promoting rather than simply sharing the great content we have in an engaging and conversational way with our community, and so we’ve been listening to our followers and changing that.

Which was most useful early on?

It depends … in terms of just enhancing our USPs and getting our messages across – what we were doing with the business – then Facebook’s a great channel. Twitter less so in the early days, but you do need to have a Twitter presence if you’re going to be where your customers are. There’s a lot of new social media channels that have come up – Polyvore, Pinterest … Pinterest is a fantastic one for a business like ours, with inspirational images, products and visual ideas that people can collect in one place.

How do you measure how successful your approaches are?

Google have a programme called Google Analytics which is free. They do have an Premium version which is paid for – but most digital businesses can measure almost anything they do on the free-to-use Google Analytics platform.

If I compare working in a family retail furnishings business back in the 90s, we’d finish a month and get our finance guys working on all our reports, but it would probably be about three or four weeks before we’d actually got any kind of information that we could use – by which time we were into yet another month with little opportunity to react to the results and change what we were doing based on the previous month’s results.

With Google Analytics, on a real-time basis I can measure absolutely anything, I can measure what channels the traffic’s coming from, the conversion rates, the devices people are using… I can see in real time what sales we’re doing, what geographical area our customers are coming from. There’s just so much information – the trick is not getting paralysed by the volume of it!

What sort of personal qualities do you need to succeed in this field?

I think you absolutely have to love what you’re doing, and be very passionate about it. For us, the first two or three years were very difficult, very challenging – it was a great idea and a lovely concept, but we really had to prove that it could work and that there was a long-term sustainable opportunity. I think just dogged determination and real passion for what you’re doing makes a huge difference – in anything, not just in commerce, but specifically in what is quite a fast-paced, competitive environment, they would be the key qualities to take you through the challenges that get thrown at you.

"For us, the first two or three years were very difficult, very challenging – it was a great idea and a lovely concept, but we really had to prove that it could work and that there was a long-term sustainable opportunity"

What were the biggest surprises?

Where to start?! It changes every day – every day you’re learning something new or a different way to do it, or there’s a new platform to consider. I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve learned about the whole digital world, delighted to prove that people would buy designer furniture online, and thrilled that I could take a traditional architectural and interior design business into the unknown and untested online sphere and make it work.

Finally, what advice would you give to anyone thinking about setting off on this journey?

Go for it! It’s definitely not for the faint-hearted, but it’s highly rewarding. At 40, I completely changed my career direction while basing it on my previous experience, and that’s been a real privilege at this stage of life, as opposed to feeling stuck doing the same job forever.

Having the product knowledge and sector expertise, and then being able to marry that with the very current ecommerce and digital technology world, has been a really exciting evolution, and I would highly recommend it. It’s incredibly hard work – people shouldn’t underestimate that – but it is great fun and highly rewarding.

This interview formed the basis for a live discussion between Paul Farley and Kate Mooney at Spring Fair International's Trends seminar theatre earlier this year, and was published in the March issue of the magazine. Read more interviews like this in Furniture News magazine each month, and register to the website to access further articles.

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