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5 Eyecare Businesses Doing Big Business in Small Niches

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From athletes to non-native speakers, eyecare pros across the country are driving business performance by finding niche demographics.

 

Sometimes a clear path to capturing new business sits in plain view. A patient with limited English struggling to communicate during an appointment. A big-and-tall man seeking large frames. A basketball-crazed teen in need of prescription eyewear on the hardwood. Recognizing the needs of these patient groups and other often-underserved segments of American society and then addressing their needs with equal doses of strategy and sincerity can help an optical business earn new customers, deepen its marketplace penetration and boost financial performance.

Here are five optical businesses that discuss how they spotted a niche group and then crafted a plan to cater to that demographic in practical, profitable ways.

By Daniel P. Smith

 

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THE BIG GUYS

“We’re in an area that’s highly Scandinavian, so there are a lot of big dudes around,” says Nikki Griffin, owner of EyeStyles Optical and Boutique in Oakdale, MN.

About a year ago, one such man of larger proportions walked into EyeStyles and handed Griffin a pair of broken frames. He asked Griffin if she could score him a replacement, noting that his doctor’s office had stopped carrying larger frames. As Griffin researched options for that individual and also reflected on the local market need, it became clear that “big dudes” and their female counterparts failed to earn much legitimate attention.

“There’s nothing out there and you know there’s a market for it, so you say, ‘Why don’t we become the destination? Big guys go to big-and-tall stores for clothing, so let’s become their place for eyewear,’” Griffin says.

In February 2016, Griffin began bringing that vision to life.

She commissioned a custom-made, 4-foot display board featuring frames for men sized 58-65 and women sized 56 and up. Constructed out of pallet wood with pipe flanges holding acrylic frame rods, the merchandising display features a playful graphic of Paul Bunyan and his beloved ox, Babe. The fun, lighthearted visual pays homage to northern folklore well known in EyeStyles’ parts, but also helps the optical shop build a story around its niche efforts.

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The “Paul and Babe Board” presents 80 frame options from the likes of Etnia Barcelona, Fatheadz and Modern Optical’s B.M.E.C. line. The deep selection is a significant departure from the handful of large frames most optical shops carry and has helped EyeStyles gain marketplace traction.

“These people who need bigger frames now don’t have to settle. They can find what they need with us,” says Griffin, who is opening a new, larger EyeStyles location in Oakdale this fall in which the “Paul and Babe Board” will be featured prominently.

 


Nikki Griffin
EyeStyles Optical and Boutique, Oakdale, MN

Ramp up Your Business with the Big Guys

➜ Before Griffin invested in a single pair of big frames, she first investigated the available inventory from manufacturers and assessed the opportunity to make a full, compelling collection. “If you can’t make a collection out of it, then it’s just weak,” she says.

➜ Most “big guy” glasses are of the traditional variety, but Griffin worked to push her selection beyond convention, a mindset characterized by a number of fashion-forward looks from Etnia Barcelona. “Big guys want fashionable eyewear, too,” she says.

➜ One notable observation Griffin’s made of “big guy” customers: “This particular market isn’t big into plastic frames. They prefer metal.”

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THE UNINSURED (OR THE UNDERINSURED)

At EyeShop Optical Center, a 5-year-old operation located on the northern outskirts of Columbus, OH, Dr. Cynthia Sayers noticed an escalating number of self-pay patients and families without any vision coverage.

“It wasn’t necessarily that these patients couldn’t afford vision coverage, but rather that employers simply weren’t offering vision coverage as an option,” Sayers says.

That reality bothered Sayers, who began contemplating potential solutions capable of benefiting patients and her practice.

“Instead of losing these people, I said, ‘Let’s find a way to make it more affordable for them,’” Sayers says.

The result?

The EyeTeam, an exclusive EyeShop membership program in which patients pay an annual fee — $25 for individuals and $40 for families — in return for discounts throughout the year on contacts, glasses and exams.

“It’s kind of like our own little insurance plan,” Sayers says.

Consider an individual walking off the street into EyeShop, where a comprehensive eye exam runs $120. If that individual joins the program for $25 and then pays the discounted $60 exam rate, he or she is immediately ahead of the game $35 compared to paying out of pocket. Thereafter, the individual receives such dollar-saving benefits as: a 10 percent discount on contact lens materials; 30 percent off the individual’s first complete eyewear; and a 30 percent markdown on non-prescription sunglasses.

For families paying $40, the savings only multiply.

“That’s where the benefits of this program really kick in,” Sayers says.

Since debuting in February, Sayers says the novel membership program has helped EyeShop, which has about 5,000 individuals in its system, retain patients and drive new patient acquisition as well.

“New clients are much more likely to bite when they find out about the membership program,” Sayers says, adding that the program has also increased EyeShop’s profitability as well as the number of self-pay patients it sees. “The uninsured person is truly shopping around and the EyeTeam membership gives them a reason to visit us. When we explain what the program entails, it’s rare we have someone turn it down.”

 


Dr. Cynthia Sayers
EyeShop Optical Center, Columbus, OH

Ramp up Your Business with the Uninsured

➜ Anytime a patient — new or existing — calls EyeShop, staff tout the membership program. “We want everyone we are in contact with to be aware of the opportunity because we know just how advantageous it is and that it’s an attractive point of differentiation for our business,” Sayers says.

➜ EyeShop’s local outreach includes visiting local businesses that do not offer vision insurance and delivering EyeTeam membership program literature to spur awareness and visits.

➜ Sayers and her team remind clients that their membership benefits cover the entire year. Planting that seed, Sayers notes, sparks repeat traffic and purchases.

➜ With the EyeTeam program in place, EyeShop has been able to retain patients motivated to visit only after purchasing a Groupon deal. While Groupon-inspired visits typically result in a one-time interaction, Sayers says offering the EyeTeam membership has served an attractive bounce-back that has fueled ongoing relationships.

 

THE SPECIALTY CONTACT LENS MARKET

Within a half-mile radius of The Gardens Eye Care, Dr. Rita Ellent’s 2-year-old office in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens, NY, sit more than a dozen optical businesses selling eyewear and vision services.

“To say it’s competitive,” Ellent says, “is a drastic understatement.”

Differentiation is the name of the game and something Ellent has developed at The Gardens by dishing out custom-made specialty contacts.

“I saw patients coming in with all kinds of vision issues impacting their personal and professional lives, and as I saw more and more of these patients, it just clicked that this was my niche,” Ellent says.

Earlier this year, Ellent began expanding her practice deeper into specialty contact lenses, eschewing generic soft contact lenses for custom-made solutions tailor made to address a patient’s specific needs and condition.

“I compare it to a custom-made suit rather than one you buy off the rack: Everything is tailored specifically to the individual,” Ellent says, adding that the specialty contacts she has provided patients have spurred significant improvements in quality of life.

“In that way, it’s wonderful to know you’re truly making a difference,” she says.

Though these patients require significant chair time and, at times, handholding, Ellent’s efforts to address their vision problems have propelled the performance of her young practice. The patients, pleased with Ellent’s involved work after years of struggling with other contact lens modalities, have become active cheerleaders for her practice and refer new patients to her office.

“It’s been a fantastic avenue to pursue and dive into,” Ellent says, calling specialty contact lenses both financially profitable and a significant growth opportunity for The Gardens.

And as an added benefit, the specialty work has also energized Ellent professionally.

“From the clinical perspective, I’m seeing a diverse range of cases that’s keeping things interesting and broadening my knowledge,” she says.

 


Dr. Rita Ellent
The Gardens Eye Care, Queens, NY

Ramp up Your Business with the Specialty Contact Lens Market

➜ While Ellent has invested in technology to help her practice, including the recent purchase of a corneal topographer, she considers human relations central to serving patients with unique needs. “The key as a doctor is always listening to patients and understanding their needs and challenges, and this is even more true when the patients present a case that is not run of the mill,” she says.

➜ Ellent continues personally meeting with local ophthalmologists as well as cornea and retina specialists to build a referral network, which she calls “a successful strategy” thus far.

➜ For those looking to break into the specialty contact lens niche, Ellent suggests attending any industry meetings or lectures geared toward these niche markets. “Network, ask questions and use others’ experiences as a learning curve rather than relying solely on your own trial and error,” she says.

 

THE NON-ENGLISH SPEAKERS

Dr. Texas Smith proves an old doc can learn new tricks. At age 73 and in his 51st year of practice, the high-spirited Smith recently completed his second semester of conversational Spanish at Sacramento City College. Smith didn’t make the effort — two nights each week for the entire academic year — to scratch some longstanding intellectual itch, but rather to better serve patients at his namesake office in Citrus Heights, CA.

“These are my patients and if I can do things to help them feel more comfortable during their visit, then I’m going to do that,” Smith says.

In Citrus Heights, where the U.S. Census reports that one in five residents speak a language other than English at home, Smith calls returning to the classroom for conversational Spanish — the area’s dominant non-English language — a wise move, even if Spanish speakers represent fewer than 10 percent of his patient roster.

“Rarely a day goes by that I don’t encounter a Spanish-speaking patient,” he says.

Though Smith’s academic efforts have not necessarily generated a more robust bottom line for his practice or produced a flood of new patients, it has undoubtedly endeared him to the Spanish-speaking patients he does see and also served to streamline appointments.

“You’re not necessarily doing it to get more patients, but to make things more efficient, effective and comfortable for the patients you have while they are present,” he says. “When patients see I’m trying to communicate with them on their level, they become so much more relaxed and that helps everything move along better.”

Smith often jokes with his Spanish-speaking clientele that he will work on his Spanish as best he can during their appointment if they promise to work on their English as best they can.

“They appreciate my effort and it puts them at ease, which is a big part of the battle we face as doctors,” Smith says.

 


Dr. Texas Smith
Dr. Texas Smith, Citrus Heights, CA

Ramp up Your Business with Non-Native Speakers

➜ The easiest way to accommodate non-native speakers, Smith says, is to hire an employee fluent in the area’s most prominent foreign language, whether that is Spanish, Polish, Mandarin or another tongue. “People are always more comfortable speaking in their native language and if that’s something you can offer patients, they’ll certainly appreciate it and remember it,” he says.

➜ Smith suggests doctors and optical staff leverage technology to guide a non-native speaker’s appointments in a more positive, productive direction. He specifically points to Google Translate, which provides translation between English and more than 100 other languages. “At the minimum, you can pull up Google Translate on a tablet and have that by you when you’re serving non-English speakers,” Smith says.

 

THE ATHLETES

At Wilson Eye Center, a 35-year-old practice in Valdosta, GA, staff consistently noted how few bespectacled children wore eyewear during soccer, basketball and other athletic endeavors.

“Parents often thought it was good enough that their kids were in glasses at all,” Wilson Eye Center optical manager Brenda Powers says.

Given that the vast majority of kids’ eye-related injuries derive from sports — as high as 90 percent by some estimates — the Wilson team looked to reverse that prevailing philosophy and attack its most pressing obstacle: cost.

In April, Wilson staffers traveled to Vision Expo East on a mission to find more economical sports frames.

Weeks later, the 9,700-square foot office unveiled a sports-specific display featuring 18 pieces of sports eyewear from Hilco. Flanked by sports paraphernalia and photos, the merchandising display showcases different styles, colors and customization options, including the ability to personalize frames with a school name or an athlete’s jersey number.

The line extension’s May debut helped staff get comfortable with the sports-specific product throughout the summer and also generated a degree of buzz with customers before Wilson Eye Care spotlighted the sports eyewear in its annual back-to-school promotion in August. In addition to its routine discount on children’s frames and lenses during the annual fall promotion, the practice offered sports eyewear with polycarbonate lenses and scratch coating for $135.

“Introducing the sports eyewear during the back-to-school season was such a natural fit,” Powers says.

While the early response to the sports eyewear has been steady at Wilson Eye Care, Powers believes the best is yet to come, especially as leadership has marked expanding the sports eyewear business a top priority in 2017.

“There’s no doubt parents are talking about it and that awareness is growing,” Powers says. “That along with the sheer number of kids playing sports makes us really optimistic moving forward.”

 


Brenda Powers
Wilson Eye Center, Valdosta, GA

Ramp up Your Business with Athletes

➜ In the months after the sports eyewear arrived at Wilson Eye Care, staff visited team practices and also distributed fliers showcasing the new eyewear to parents, especially those heading to a sports practice. Opticians, meanwhile, pointed out the new sports eyewear during children’s visits. “There are plenty of opportunities to highlight what we offer here and we need to take advantage of those,” Powers says.

➜ Moving forward, Wilson Eye Care will place a particularly high emphasis on education, noting how sports eyewear improves vision and protects athletes. Powers and her team will specifically look to develop personal relationships with coaches and also plan to visit athletic centers like the YMCA and Boys and Girls Club to promote the value of sports eyewear with well-placed influencers.

 

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Best of the Best

How This Colorado Practice’s ‘Office Culture Blueprint’ is Boosting Referrals

And how they persuaded their team to embrace a new mindset.

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EYE CARE CENTER of Colorado Springs, CO, has a large specialty contact lens practice that owes its success in part to the referrals it receives from ODs and MDs in Colorado Springs, Denver, Pueblo and as far away as California. You don’t maintain a referral-driven practice without top-level service, and with so much on the line, sometimes it pays to codify what’s expected of staff. But no one responds to a laundry list of rules. “We have found we have to re-educate ourselves and any new team members we hire,” says co-owner Sara Whitney, OD, and this realization recently led the practice to develop its own “office culture blueprint.”

THE IDEA

Translating a vague desire to get the best out of your team into a set of tangible principles is harder than it sounds. “We made a feeble attempt to create a culture statement a few years ago,” recalls Whitney, “and we never finished it because we didn’t really know how to implement it.” Practice founder and co-owner Dr. Reed Bro eventually came across the concept of “above the line behavior,” an approach based on personal responsibility. Whitney says the beauty of this concept is that it encourages “behaviors that create a positive event for the next person in the chain.” The goal is to “resist the temptation to blame…to complain for the sake of complaining, or become defensive.”

Dr. Reed Bro and Dr. Sara Whitney

THE EXECUTION

Whitney, Bro and office manager Mindi Andrade developed what would become the office’s cultural blueprint over several months. It takes its starting point from a few core beliefs. These are matched with a set of encouraged behaviors and desired outcomes. Your core beliefs, Whitney says, “are the reasons you decided to start practicing optometry or open a business.”

Once these basic elements were finalized, the managers initiated a transitional phase in which they used the vocabulary that forms the core of the blueprint in day-to-day interactions with one another and with staff. “We did not present the blueprint to the team until we were comfortable that we were able to personally apply the core beliefs to any situation,” Whitney says. They launched it at the beginning of January, when people are making resolutions and personal improvements. “We printed up the culture matrix on a card for each member of the team.”

Whitney says you can tell right away which staff will be on board and who will resist. “We lost three team members around the time the blueprint was rolled out. It may have just been a personal decision for the employee, but it can cause you to momentarily doubt your decision to demand these behaviors.” It’s important to be strong and stick to your guns at this stage, she says. Remember that the key beliefs you identified as the basis for your blueprint are important. “They are the reason you get up in the morning and come to work,” she says. “Expectations … make some people uncomfortable. They will resist change, and you have to let them move on.”

THE REWARDS

Whitney says the blueprint has delivered its targeted outcomes: an enhanced sense of community, patient satisfaction, trust, loyalty, adherence to treatment plans, and referrals. But there are personal benefits too. “I think those who have embraced this new mindset will be able to see it spilling over into their personal lives.”

Ultimately, Eye Care Center of Colorado Springs’ aim with the blueprint was to cultivate behaviors that grow the business, and so far, that aim is being met. Says Whitney: “We have developed the mindset that being presented with a challenge is our opportunity to get ahead of the problem and to possibly even be someone’s hero.”

Do It Yourself: Develop an Office Culture

  • DON’T RUSH IT. “Take time to define your beliefs over a period of weeks or months,” says Whitney.
  • WALK THE WALK. “Live out behaviors that support your beliefs,” Whitney advises. “You are the biggest example of your practice culture.”
  • TWO-WAY STREET. An office culture doesn’t have to be static: Survey your team periodically and ask for feedback.
  • COMMUNICATE. If you don’t, a blueprint is just a list tacked to a wall.
  • STAY STRONG. A change like this might cost you an employee. But stay the course or it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.

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Best of the Best

Tennessee Practice Throws Itself an Epic Birthday Party, Creates New Tradition

This patient-appreciation event made for a great business-building tool.

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ANDREW AND ELIZABETH HOWARD, optometrists and co-owners of LaFollette Eye Clinic in Jacksboro, TN, pride themselves on a level of service that has patients coming in from Ohio, Texas, and Florida. As the practice’s 30th anniversary approached in October last year, they decided a one-day trunk show wouldn’t reach as many people as they wanted. An occasion like this warranted something special.

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THE IDEA

“We like to capitalize on milestones as a way to generate interest, and the 30-year milestone was a great opportunity,” Andy recalls. When it comes to event planning, ideas at LaFollette are typically generated and fleshed out in-house by the practice’s eight-person Leadership Team, which collectively boasts decades in eyecare. But, they also enjoy looking at other practices and sharing ideas with other doctors. “This event was a mixture of the two techniques. We traditionally hold one or two open houses or trunk shows a year, but we had never held a week-long celebration,” Howard says.

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THE EXECUTION

It took the team several meetings to brainstorm ideas, then organize them. Various aspects were delegated to different leads on the team. Says Andy: “Involving the team builds engagement, loyalty and morale, and helped us keep our costs down.”

A “Diamonds and Pearls” theme was chosen. According to Andy, these are not only “modern and traditional anniversary gifts, but it’s also a great song by Prince.” The celebration itself featured giveaways, prizes, a 30-percent off sale, snacks and drinks all week, activities such as face-painting for kids, cornhole, and a “photo booth” with a retro-style instant camera for patients who used ’80s-themed props or their own new glasses for digital images that were shared on social media. In addition, demonstrations were held with reps from local crafters and artists’ groups — even a Lion’s Club member who brought in leader dogs for the blind. (A donation drive was held for the Lion’s Club.)

A local artist’s association was invited to bring in artwork; these were joined on LaFollette’s walls by “storyboards” highlighting the practice’s services, including photographs going back to the ’80s. Long-time patients and ex-staff members joined the celebration, and the optical even changed the music to ’80s hits for the week.

The costs were “minimal” given the scale of the event. A giant eyeglasses balloon sculpture was the most expensive item. “We had enough cupcakes for everyone, but they were made by a team member who is a wonderful baker.” All giveaways were donated by local businesses in exchange for marketing.

THE REWARDS

The biggest surprise to Andy was how many people showed up just to wish LaFollette a happy anniversary. Sales were up during the week, but that was secondary to the goal of celebrating and thanking patients, he says. “It was more fun than we’ve had in a long time; that by itself is worth the effort.” He adds: “Now we need to begin looking for another excuse to have a week-long celebration… We had too much fun to wait 10 more years!”

PHOTO GALLERY (10 IMAGES)

Do It Yourself: Hold A 
Patient-Centered Celebration

  • ALL HANDS ON. The key, says Andy, is involving the whole team. “So many people have different talents, and an event like this allows that talent to shine.”
  • CROSS-PROMOTE. Talk to neighboring businesses and see if they’ll contribute prizes in exchange for some free marketing.
  • GO WITH A PRO. Failing to plan is planning to fail. If you don’t have the HR depth that LaFollette has, consider using a professional event planner.
  • WIDE FOCUS. To foster a sense of community, think beyond eyewear. According to Andy, the leader dog for the blind was one of the hits of the week.
  • PICK A MOTIF. Choosing a theme gives you a hook to hang activities on. Practice turning 20? Ask your stylist for “The Rachel.”

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Benchmarks

Ways ECPs Are Benefiting from Short Intro Videos for Their Practices

Practice introduction videos have multiple benefits, and these days they’re a cinch to produce.

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Introducing yourself to potential patients and customers, eliminating the element of surprise for first-timers, and boosting your SEO and Google rankings: Producing a professional-looking intro video for your practice has multiple benefits and doesn’t have to bust your marketing budget. Check out this handful of practices that have embraced multimedia.

Precision Vision

Edmund, OK

Precision Vision in Edmund, OK, designed their video to help patients get to know the practice before coming in. “The video was structured to try and eliminate surprises,” says owner Dr. Selina McGee. It plays on the website and her Facebook page, boosting SEO across channels and driving traffic to the practice. McGee hired a videographer to shoot and edit the video for about $800. “I wanted it to look completely professional.” McGee’s main goal was boosting SEO, but now that she’s got the video up and running she concedes she could probably do an even better job of getting patients to see it. She’s also come to realize it has other potential benefits. “Customers always want to see the real you, so create something authentic that shows your personality,” she advises. “Have fun with it. Remember, your patients and customers can’t buy YOU down the street.”

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Spanish Oaks Eyecare

Cedar Park, TX

Spanish Oaks Eyecare’s video involved some luck. It was professionally done. “However,” says owner Dr. Dina Miller, “we were approached by [a crew] wanting to use our waiting area for a film. So in exchange they offered to do it at no charge.” The video walks the audience through Spanish Oaks’ office, with both exterior and interior shots, before showing Miller examining a patient and reviewing their optomap results. It ends with the patient in the optical working with her optician Bob. “During that part, we let people know how we’re different than most opticals and why ­— we carry only independent frame lines.” The video, whose main goal Miller says is to introduce Spanish Oaks to potential patients and customers, is posted on Facebook. “It’s a great way to … make yourself ‘real’ and familiar.”
She advises other ECPs to make sure the video features actual staff. “That’s one of the most important parts; making it personable. I was tempted to have someone else sit in for me but at the end of the day, I knew that would really take away from the video and its purpose.” And don’t be afraid to edit: Miller opted for voice overs, as they had felt uncomfortable speaking to camera, and added captions for things she wanted the audience to know (for example, the fact that her optician is one of just two people with an active American Board of Opticianry Advanced certification in her part of Texas). “Also,” she advises, “consider having parts where you and possibly your main staff talk to the camera about what’s important to you, what sets you apart from others — not the generic ‘We have the best customer service/patient care,’ etc.”

Ziegler Leffingwell Eyecare

New Berlin, WI

According to Dr. Dave Ziegler, Ziegler Leffingwell Eyecare hit on the idea of making an intro video as a way of giving “strong visual exposure of what it is like to be in our office.” And they found a striking way to do just that, hiring a real estate photographer to use a drone, which opens the video hovering outside the front of the office, then enters through the front door and flies throughout the office. “This flight path through the office is the way our patients experience our office during a typical eye exam,” he says. The video boasts a script written by Ziegler himself; he hired a professional to do the voice over for maximum impact. He felt it was important that the video should be less than a minute long; it’s now posted to the practice’s website, one among many features that he says win their website routine praise. Asked whether the time and expense that went into making the video were worth it, he replies that more than that, “it is necessary” for any practice, in his view.

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Dr. Bladh OD

Diamond Bar, CA

The folks at Dr. Bladh OD, a Diamond Bar, CA practice, understand the power of videos to increase a business’s Google ranking by boosting the amount of content that links back to its website. They signed up with a company called Promo! that allows them to make multiple 15-second videos. “The [Promo!] site has a ton of content with professional videos to use.” Once you edit it, the video is yours to keep. So the video is professionally done, but everything added to it is DIY.
“Video marketing gets so much more traction than pictures or boring blog posts,” reports Josh Bladh. The videos are similar, but each has its own emphasis. Most feature music and a few lines of text to get people’s attention. “Search engines are putting more emphasis on video content so this seemed like the best option to get our foothold with video before paying for anything professional,” he says.
The videos are posted to Facebook and Instagram. “We will add videos to blog posts on our website where relevant.”
In the practice’s experience, consumers typically need six to eight touch points before they’ll call and commit to an exam. So, using videos to boost these contact points for the service’s relatively low monthly fee makes sense. Bladh warns ECPs to do their homework before signing up for such a service, however, as some companies will give you a hard time if you attempt to use any unused video credits after letting your subscription lapse.

Anthony Aiden Opticians

New York, NY

Anthony Aiden Opticians went for a more adult approach in their video, a 30-second short about … a misunderstanding. It may seem like male fantasy, but optician Anthony Gaggi swears it’s based on reality. “My sister’s friend was a stylist; she was working alone one night and…” Well, we don’t want to spoil it; suffice it to say whether you find it hilarious, titillating or offensive, there’s no denying it conveys the store’s edgy, fashion-conscious style. “My goal,” Gaggi says, “was to bring a high-quality fashion video to my website.” The video is also displayed in the store’s windows. A friend who works in TV offered his services for free; Gaggi says clients love it.

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