Tales of Triumph runner-up and finalists in the Breakthrough Marketing category discuss what it takes to create a community of passionate customers.
Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes. For many Canadian small businesses, recent times have given them multiple opportunities to reinvent their approach to advertising and marketing. Plant Gather, Prairie Soap Shack, Off2Class and Tessaramics are homegrown small businesses that are successfully building communities of loyal customers and fans. What can you learn from these small, but mighty, marketers?
Plant Gather: Growing a community of brand ambassadors
Founded shortly after the onset of the pandemic, Plant Gather of Richmond, British Columbia, is a family-proud business that sells rare tropical houseplants from coast to coast. “In a period of social isolation, plants have served a valuable therapeutic function for many experiencing stress,” says founder Melissa Donnett.
Plant Gather may be a small business, but even marketing powerhouses can draw inspiration from its innovative, multi-channel approach to connecting with communities of consumers.
The company’s strategy includes lots of social media, such as daily posts, ads, online plant-growing lessons and contests on Instagram and Facebook. Direct mail pieces invite customers to post videos of themselves unboxing their new plants.
Creating a legion of brand ambassadors from their satisfied customers has been a goal from day one.
Our ambassadors have been tremendous, creating instructional videos, offers and contests. We truly could not have done it without them.
All of this contributes to Plant Gather’s growing marketing ecosystem while enriching the lives of customers and team alike with a literal breath of fresh air!
Read about how to create a functional brand awareness strategy for your small business.Read our blog
Prairie Soap Shack: Enhancing customer engagement with inspiring marketing communications
Prairie Soap Shack of Elnora, Alberta, takes inspiration from the past and the plants of the prairies to create innovative all-natural skin and body care products. Founder Jess Mose is the consummate owner-marketer, taking inspiration wherever she can find it.
“I have joined a few online communities for small businesses in Canada, and I learned an important tactic to market through social media and online is to show the whole process of my business and behind the scenes.”
She is active on Instagram and Facebook and writes a blog to help create conversations and broaden her community of loyalists. These are complemented by regular email marketing campaigns.
Video has been key to customer engagement. “I make my own products, so I create fun videos showing me pouring soap, and telling stories. People want to see the maker and what goes into the products they are ordering online.”
High-quality photography is important because customers are making purchasing decisions on how products look on social media and websites.
Prairie Soap Shack has generated tremendous buzz since its launch. Jess’s passion project has been featured in Prairie Living, House & Garden, Trailblazher, Vanity Fair and Vogue.
“I feel people are really connecting with my brand. They tell me they are ‘lifetime customers’ and that they are sharing my products with their family and friends!”
Off2Class: Making learning accessible and fun
Digital learning went mainstream during the pandemic and Toronto-based Off2Class made sure that English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers had the tools they needed to work effectively. Off2Class provides a toolkit for ESL teachers, including diagnostic assessments, ready-made lessons, teacher notes and all of the content that ESL teachers need to teach online and a student management system. That set of solutions has been in high demand and Off2Class now works with teachers in more than 100 U.S. K-12 schools and in 120 countries worldwide.
Co-founders Kris Jagasia and James Heywood were living in Istanbul, both having recently left their jobs, when the idea for Off2Class struck. “We launched a small online ESL school there in Turkey. It was the genesis of Off2Class, and while we were doing that project, we realized that there was a lack of good content made for a modern video conference classroom,” shared Jagasia. “In 2015, we released a small beta version to a small group of online ESL teachers. Fast forward seven years, we moved back to Toronto, hired our first employees and now we power lots of large school districts in the U.S. and some of the largest online ESL schools on the web.”
As the team built a product, they kept their focus on the problem they were trying to solve – enabling ESL teachers to easily teach online.
As long as we were solving that problem, we were able to grow because we were able to find people who were experiencing that problem and just get the product into their hands.
That clear focus enabled their team to grow quickly, attracting people who believed in their purpose.
COVID presented a unique opportunity for Off2Class, as virtual learning became more and more common. As parents, teachers and schools looked for solutions and students moved online, Off2Class was seeing a rapid uptick in traffic and interest. “We needed to respond to that demand, and shift our marketing focus away from raw sales growth towards just getting Off2Class into the hands of as many teachers as possible, all with a really small team.” Focusing on releasing lessons for free download and doubling-down on their existing Facebook community, the Off2Class team was able to support the education community as they adapted to a new way of teaching.
Off2Class is a solution built by language teachers for language teachers. Those teachers have powered growth as their Facebook community became the “marketing heroes of Off2Class.” Their team of 13 at the time were faced with answering queries from thousands of teachers in one day, when the Facebook community stepped up, helping fellow educators get set up and teaching. “The Off2Class community members became the best possible marketing we could ever imagine, effectively just like a great group of teachers who love Off2Class and want to help out their fellow teachers get online. So, you know, what better marketing could you ever imagine?”
The shift from sales-focused marketing paid off in more ways than one. In 2020, their headcount and sales doubled thanks to their marketing pivot from sales to community engagement. At the same time, Off2Class began being adopted by school districts, seeing growth in the U.S. where nearly in 1 in 10 students are ESL students. In 2022, responding to a shortage of ESL teachers, Off2Class hosted a free virtual ESL Career Fair for districts and teachers.
Off2Class continues to sell to teachers and private schools around the world, maintaining two lines of outreach. A bootstrapped and profitable company, Off2Class plans to raise its first round of funding later this year with the aim of expanding its operations. The company continues to release new features on the platform, offering teachers and students an improved learning experience.
In house, they plan to hire across their marketing, sales, engineering and product teams, seeking passionate individuals to build their product and brand and deliver on their mission. They firmly believe that “growth is a function of great people.” Jagasia is focused on adding the right people to the existing team. “You just need an awesome founding team and really a passion for the problem you’re trying to solve. If you have that, the rest will fall into place.”
Tessaramics: Using behind-the-scenes content to fuel customer engagement
Tessa Reed has been obsessed with pottery since childhood. Now, Reed has harnessed their love of ceramics and cats to create a successful small business,
Tessaramics. Focusing on cat-themed, handmade ceramics like mugs and figurines, Reed has also expanded into patches, pins, greeting cards and more.
Exploring their childhood passion, Reed attended Emily Carr University of Art and Design to focus on ceramics and apprenticed under potters on Granville Island. “I learned about how they ran their business, saw how they lived and everything around that and I just fell in love with that small business lifestyle …I wanted to figure out a way to make that permanent and something I could do for the rest of my life.”
Around that same time, Reed began working at Vancouver’s feline café, Catfe – the inspiration for Tessaramics. Catfe eventually became the first shop to stock Tessaramics products.
With the closure of in-person markets and stores due to COVID, Reed needed to make changes to their existing marketing and selling practices. “I shifted to selling primarily online, but with that, I suddenly had the opportunity and space to really rehash how my advertising was and how my marketing worked. So, what I decided to do is to switch my social media from showcasing the finished work and my products to really exemplifying my process.”
Thorough a TikTok account, Reed was able to create videos that showcased the work and care behind their products, bringing people digitally behind the scenes of the creation process. “I never realized that everything is one step removed once it’s on a table somewhere else. People don’t know just how many steps and how much care goes into each step of the process, and that’s what I love about making things.”
And people loved watching. Less than 6 months after starting the TikTok account in October 2020, Tessaramics had 100K followers and people were actively engaged. “I was getting lots of messages, and suddenly I couldn’t keep my website stocked at all. My website sells out in less than 10 minutes now.”
Building on the unexpected response through TikTok, Reed funneled their social media, creating a newsletter specifically for those interested in purchasing new work, allowing them to receive updates on new products, restocks and purchasing opportunities, while maintaining other channels where Reed can focus on sharing their process and studio work. The more targeted marketing approach means more flexibility in the studio.
With customers, new customers and retaining old customers, they're able to see my work change, shift, the new exploration and they're just as excited as I am to come in and check out what's new on my website.
Moving forward and continuing to grow, Reed’s focus is on connecting with their audience, new and old. “I want to be authentic, I want to share what I love and I don’t want to be creating content if it doesn’t hit those two things.”
Continue learning about small businesses like yours.
Discover more about the finalists and winners of our Tales of Triumph Contest.Read their stories