House of White Birches Produces Fine Products and Occupies an Enviable Niche, but Hasn’t Learned the Best Online Publishing Strategy
House of White Birches, a division of the Dynamic Resource Group, is an experienced print publisher. It has an enviable collection of magazines and book titles. It has carved out several profitable special-interest niches that it addresses with excellent products. But like many other successful print publishers, its Internet marketing strategy is not well executed.
The WhiteBirches.com site suffers from disorganization and an inferior architecture that confuses users and diminishes sales.
Additionally, the site misses the opportunity to create an ongoing, engaging relationship with needlework enthusiasts because it offers no discussion forum to encourage return visits.
WhiteBirches.com’s Mequoda Scorecard
House of White Birches is a consumer book, magazine and mail order catalog company founded more than 50 years ago by two brothers, Ed and Mike Kutlowski. They were pioneers in the magazine industry, producing a wide variety of niche publications decades before the current explosion of special-interest magazines.
In 1985, the Kutlowskis retired and sold their business to printers Carl and Art Muselman. HWB currently publishes seven magazines, many of which were launched in the 1970s and are still popular today.
Good Old Days, HWB’s oldest and largest magazine, first began publication in 1964. Other titles include Home Cooking, Crochet World, Quilter’s World, PaperWorks and Creative Knitting.
Since 1995, the company has published more than 100 hardcover and soft cover book titles for consumers.
House of White Birches is one of several publishing-related companies owned by the Muselman family, all organized under the umbrella of Dynamic Resource Group, which includes:
- House of White Birches, publishers of books and magazines in the interest areas of quilting, crafts, crochet, knitting, plastic canvas, sewing, cooking, doll collectibles and Good Old Days nostalgia publications;
- Annie’s Attic, publishers of books, pattern books and magazines in the interest areas of crochet, cross-stitch, crafts, plastic canvas, knitting and sewing;
- The Needlecraft Shop, publishers of needlecraft books, pattern books and magazines; and
- American School of Needlework, a leader in the needlework industry that produces books in knitting and crochet, cross-stitch, embroidery, quilting, and fabric crafts.
Today we take a hard look at www.WhiteBirches.com, one of the company’s numerous popular websites. In the Mequoda model it’s a hub-retail hybrid website, which, according to our sources, generates 30 percent of the publisher’s magazine subscriptions. With a revised Internet marketing strategy, that number could be a lot higher.
1. Strategic Intent – C – Action to be taken is not prominent
This site wants to start a relationship with visitors by offering free email newsletters, but the offer is hidden in the lower left quadrant.
Even worse, it makes signing up a two-step process that requires the visitor to click away to another page—inefficient and dangerous. Not a smart Internet marketing strategy.
However, when the visitor does eventually get to the Dynamic Resource Group newsletter signup page, it does offer numerous choices. This is a case of delayed gratification, and while multiple choices are nice, the publisher risks losing a percentage of total visitors with each additional (and unnecessary) click.
2. Content Webification – C – Search engine only
There is a site search engine here and not much more. We found no evidence of any downloadable samples, instructions or needlework patterns. An effective Internet marketing strategy would include offering instantly downloadable reports of needlework patterns. By comparison to some of its competitors, WhiteBirches.com is very low-tech.
By comparison to some of its competitors, WhiteBirches.com is very low-tech.
3. Relationship Building – B – Content personalization devices are present
The website attempts to capture the visitor’s email address with the free email newsletter offers. And while no instantly downloadable reports or needlework patterns are offered, the site attempts immediately to sell paid products such as the Collectible Doily Series, which includes four free doily patterns and other gifts. This is a customer continuity program (every month customers receive two all-new sets of Projects Pages at $4.99 per set, plus postage and processing.)
4. Community Building – F – No community involvement devices
Hobbyists love to show off their work and share ideas with each other.
Other websites devoted to selling needlework patterns, such as ArtisticThreadWorks.com, have leveraged these shared enthusiasms by creating online communities of loyal customers.
House of White Birches Internet marketing strategy misses a huge opportunity here by not providing a discussion forum or the ability for needlecraft hobbyists to upload and display photos of their work.
5. Persistent Navigation – D – Is neither persistent nor consistent
The persistent site visitor can eventually find his way to the website pages where she can order books or magazine subscriptions, but House of White Birches doe not make this easy.
The tabbed architecture of the home page actually takes visitors off to some other DRG publication websites, sometimes without opening a new window. This is definitely not a recommended Internet marketing strategy.
6. User Task Depth – C – A hodgepodge
To succeed in user task depth, a website should encourage clearly defined “next steps.” House of White Birches does not do this.
Sure, the user can find her way around with some effort, sign up for a free email newsletter, or buy a magazine subscription. But the organization of this website is a hodgepodge and “backing up” or returning to the previous page is often impossible.
When website designers get this part of the website architecture wrong, the results are always costly. Patience is not a widely held web-surfer virtue. Confuse your visitors and they will leave without buying.
7. Affordance – B – Some of the links and buttons have clear affordance
Here the site gets a B+ from me for having blue, underlined hypertext links that turn maroon when clicked. Too bad they don’t turn red when moused over. That’s a website design element that would have earned an A.
The buttons are drab but functional. Unfortunately, as railed about above, they sometimes take the user to an entire different website instead of another page on the same site.
8. Labeling and Language – A – Good representation of key words
Crafts, crochet, home cooking, etc.—these words and phrases are simple enough that few people who visit this site are going to be confused by technical jargon. Although I must point out that “easy-to-stitch plastic canvas” is a notion that is foreign to me. But then again, I’m not a needlecraft kind of guy.
Additionally, if this were my client, I would recommend creating a separate website for each publication. At the very least, they should isolate the home cooking products from the needlecraft products.
9. Readability and Content Density – A – Uncluttered, adequate white space
The site is uncluttered, and easy to read. But that doesn’t excuse its being poorly organized (see below).
The layout is very narrow, resulting in considerable unused white space abutting its curiously under-used right navigation panel.
The layout is very narrow, resulting in considerable unused white space
abutting its curiously under-used right navigation panel.
10. Content Organization (Marketing Quadrants) – C – Primary tasks obscured
Again, I believe a separate website for each publication is in order. But if limited only to WhiteBirches.com, here’s what would improve the organization and overall Internet marketing strategy of the site:
- Move the free newsletter signup to the top left or top right quadrant.
- Remove the less important navigation tabs — corporate, employment, advertising, etc. — from the top and use only hypertext links to these sections at the bottom.
- Isolate and integrate all ordering activity, and make it accessible on the WhiteBirches.com site, (not on some other site) with the click of one, prominent button that appears in the identical place on the home page and every other page, as well.
- Move the search function from the top left quadrant to the top right.
11. Content Freshness – D – Content doesn’t change much
The site seems very staid. The content doesn’t change very often. The site doesn’t offer visitors any incentives to return.
12. Load Time – C – Under 50 seconds on 56K for text
13. Aesthetics – A – Support the purpose of the site
This site is simple and pristine. Use of the color green, which is generally associated with leisure, is consistent with this user’s mental model.
14. Brand Preference – C – Sends confusing messages
House of White Birches and Dynamic Resource Group have an enviable collection of titles and have carved out profitable niches. But like many other successful print magazine publishers, their Internet marketing strategy and website design could be greatly improved. Recommended reading: How to Start & Run an Effective Internet Marketing System.