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IQ News: Crafting a Niche

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Publisher creates an online consumer show to drive traffic to Web sites and brick-and-mortar retailers.
The folks who bring you Better Homes and Gardens have come up with a new wrinkle in online marketing: a virtual consumer show, complete with exhibit booths, seminars, giveaways and more.
Des Moines, Iowa-based Meredith Corp., which publishes BH&G, Ladies Home Journal and a number of crafts publications, calls the show CraftFest--fitting, because it showcases crafts such as stitchery, quilting, sewing, painting, decorating and more. Some 65 companies are now exhibiting their wares in 73 "booths" at CraftFest II, which opened its virtual doors Jan. 20 at www.craftfest.com and will keep them open, around the clock, through Jan. 30.
BUILDING ON SUCCESS
As the name implies, this is the show's second run. The first CraftFest, which took place last September, was so successful that Meredith decided to build on the franchise. That event drew 85,000 unique visitors, who logged 2 million page views.
Show organizers say the exhibit fills a need in the crafts market. "Not everyone has a local needlework show they can get to," observes Maureen Ruth, publisher for the Better Homes and Gardens Crafts Group. "This is a fun, interactive event where crafters can find out about products and companies they didn't know about, and get ideas for projects." Because many crafters are computer enthusiasts, the online event is tailor-made for them, she adds. Admission is free.
The timing of CraftFest II plays to the seasonal nature of crafts. "This time of year is good for a show, since crafting is a cold-weather activity," Ruth says. "You also exploit the craft guilt factor--everyone has a million things they were going to make for Christmas but didn't get around to."
The marketing community is equally enthusiastic about the new venue. "The goal for exhibitors is to expose their Internet sites to a broader audience," Ruth says. Some vendors sell their wares at the show, while others are seeking to build demand that can be satisfied through their existing brick-and-mortar retailers.
Among the exhibitors at this year's event are Kodak, which is showing film and cameras for use in scrapbooking; Michaels, a craft-supplies store; DMC, which wholesales craft kits and embroidery floss; and Jo-Ann Stores, a craft-supplies retailer.
NEW AND IMPROVED
CraftFest II has evolved since the first go-around. The original CraftFest featured a floor plan with 65 exhibitors' booths. When users clicked on a specific booth, they'd move to a stage displaying products, projects and more. Another click would usher them to the exhibitor's home page.
"We refined our model to make navigation easier," Ruth says. "There's no floor plan this time, because we found it was slow to load. Instead, we're doing a listing of exhibitors." Pages are designed to load quickly so visitors can easily explore the site, she adds.
Because visitors to the first show said they wanted more buying opportunities, CraftFest II has added a "Shopping" button to its navigation bar, which brings up a list of vendors that are selling at the show.
"We expect more exhibitors to be aggressive about selling this time than in the first show," Ruth says. Many are promoting the show on their own sites to drive traffic to the event.
Other changes were prompted by user feedback as well. "Users told us they loved free projects and wanted more," Ruth adds. "So this time we'll have over 50 free project sheets that they can print out, for things like quilts and needlework."
More than 40 educational classes and an ask-the-experts session round out the offerings.
Show organizers are running several special events to stimulate traffic. They're giving away a $25,000 grand prize to one lucky visitor and holding a treasure hunt. The treasure hunt is designed to drive visitors to booths they might not otherwise visit. "We found a lot of traffic went to the big-brand names at the first CraftFest," Ruth says. "So we added this treasure hunt to expose visitors to brands they're not familiar with."
EXTENDING ITS REACH
The online show benefits Meredith in a number of ways. The company sells booth space to exhibitors, along with sponsorships. CraftFest also extends BH&G's reach to a new audience. "About 70 percent of the visitors to the first CraftFest did not subscribe to BH&G or our crafts magazines," Ruth says. "Our demographic for the online show is younger than we typically see for crafts publications--about 47 years old as opposed to early to mid-50s. Showgoers also have a higher household income, around $55,000. So this allows us to reach a different customer base."
Ruth notes that in many ways she personifies the target market. "I'm what we're looking for--a dabbler," she observes with a laugh. "I'm big into seasonal decorations--I had five Christmas trees in my house--and I like to give gifts that I've put something of myself into. I also do some food crafts and lots of tabletop stuff for well-orchestrated dinner parties. There are a lot of people like me who dabble with crafts, but don't consider themselves crafters."
An interior designer by trade, Ruth joined Meredith in 1994, spending a year in the book-club operation before moving to the BH&G Crafts Group in 1995 as advertising and ancillary sales director. She subsequently was promoted to associate publisher for the group and on Jan. 3 became publisher.
Prior to working at Meredith, she was merchandising director with Chicago-based Leewards Creative Crafts, a crafts retail organization.
Ruth sees a return engagement for CraftFest in the offing. "We invested in creating a strong brand and want to build on that," she says.
There's no telling what could develop. WOOD Magazine, a sister publication that launched its own online show in May 1998, used the event as a springboard for a permanent online mall that holds quarterly shows. It's too early to say if CraftFest will follow suit, but if the current show proves successful, stay tuned for more. "We'll look at our model and decide what's next," Ruth says.