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How Steel City Collectibles Became a Leader in Sports Memorabilia

The sports collectibles retailer uses Mailchimp’s tools to help them build meaningful connections with their audience.

Creating a winning business formula can be challenging, especially when your niche is trading cards and sports memorabilia. But when Sean Bennett and Ken Amoroso, owners of 2 competing sports memorabilia stores in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, decided to join forces, they set out to take the challenge head-on.

Since opening Steel City Collectibles in 2002, Bennett, Amoroso, and their team have catered to the most passionate fanatics of sports collectibles, becoming one of the self-described industry leaders in sports trading cards, autographs, and memorabilia. It hasn’t always been easy—no worthy challenge is—but part of Steel City’s winning formula has been their ability to consistently meet adversity with tenacity.

We sat down with Billy Lesnak, Steel City’s Marketing Director, to learn more about their business, marketing strategy, and the tools that help them stay connected with their growing customer base.

Why do you think sports collectibles have such mainstream appeal?

I think that the biggest thing about sports collectibles, whether it's trading cards or autographed memorabilia, is that we’re selling memories. We’re selling our collectors—who range between 5 and 90 years old—their favorite player, their favorite team. We’re offering something tangible that elicits an emotional response.

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The past few years have been difficult for many small businesses. What has been the biggest challenge for Steel City?

Keeping up with the volume of orders. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of guessing and adapting. We had to figure out how to navigate through the new normal we were experiencing. We knew we had to social distance and keep our employees safe, but we also had to keep our customers happy.

We didn’t really expect the market for sports collectibles, trading cards, and autographed memorabilia to take off as it has over the past 2 or 3 years, so our biggest challenge has been keeping up with that market. We had to ask ourselves, ‘How can we grow more efficiently? How can we better utilize the tools we already have on-hand to push ourselves and keep up with customer demand?’

What brought Steel City to Mailchimp?

Years ago, when we wanted to get into email marketing, Mailchimp was our go-to. We saw other businesses using it, so we jumped on and haven’t looked back because it’s so easy to use.

"You can spend money on advertising and put content out on social media all day long, but email marketing can just be so effective."

In the beginning, our goal was just to market back to our customers. We would send out “Hail Mary”-style bulk emails to everyone, hoping something sticks. We just wanted to get back into customers’ inboxes, whether they had placed an order with us, attended an in-person show, or subscribed to our email list. You can spend money on advertising and put content out on social media all day long, but email marketing can just be so effective.

Over time, we've been able to use more of the tools that Mailchimp provides—things like segmentation and automation—to really key in on customer specifics.

Can you share more about the ways you tag and segment your audience?

We have our audience tagged and segmented based on our goals. That way, when we go to different memorabilia shows, like the National Sports Card Convention in Chicago, for example, we can contact people who have signed up to receive more information about those events. The same thing goes for in-store events—customers in the Pittsburgh area can opt-in to receive information about events at our physical brick-and-mortar retail location that people in Chicago might not be interested in attending. We even create segments of our audience to share information about upcoming sales or Black Friday offers.

"It's just a few clicks of a computer mouse, and you can sit back and let Mailchimp do the rest."

How do you keep track of all your orders and other CRM data?

We have an in-house system—that our developers have programmed for all of our online orders—that speaks directly with the Mailchimp API. That's how we keep track of a lot of our content and customer profiles.

We like that we’re able to have our marketing and CRM tools talk to one another and everything stays so neat and organized. It's just a few clicks of a computer mouse, and you can sit back and let Mailchimp do the rest.

You mentioned automation earlier; what’s the biggest benefit Steel City has seen from using Mailchimp’s automation tools?

The biggest thing is just saving time. We can set up an automation that works in the background. There are only so many hours in a day, so the fact that we can use Mailchimp’s automations, let them do what we need them to do, and then capitalize based on the results is huge. We just set those up once, and then it saves us time and increases our productivity across the board.

Does Steel City regularly use any other Mailchimp tools or templates?

We’ve been using the Photo-Forward Product Promo template [from the Mailchimp Marketplace] because it’s photo-friendly and we like the sections it offers. Based on the graphics and content we create in-house, that template helps us create the best experience for our customers. It allows us to showcase our products, banners, sales, or events, and we're really happy with it.

We use the Inbox Preview feature a lot, too, especially when we’re using graphics that we want to display across our website and email. It helps us make sure we're not getting anything clipped off and that [the email] looks good on both mobile and desktop.

And then we also use Content Optimizer every single time we send because it gives us recommendations for our next email; things like different font sizes or graphics that we could include. We look at that report and see what we can do better next time based on Mailchimp’s recommendations.

I think Mailchimp’s tools are just fantastic across the board.

Steel City has a large following on social media; how do you incorporate those social channels into your marketing strategy?

Every email we send out has links to our social media channels, so it's all connected. And vice versa, when we put new email campaigns out there, we’re able to re-share them on Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes we’ll even share them in Facebook Groups to hit some of our more targeted audiences with those campaigns.

The ease of sharing—that synergy between the platforms—allows us to point people from social media to Mailchimp or from Mailchimp to our social channels. It can be a helpful growth method; it covers all of our bases.

Overall, what’s been the key to success for Steel City?

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We've always challenged ourselves, no matter what. So even if something seems easier or we find that something is going well, we still try to push ourselves. We challenge ourselves not just with trading cards—because there are a lot of people who are selling and buying trading cards these days—but we've expanded into the market of unopened trading card boxes and cases. We go after the markets that we feel confident in and challenge ourselves to be on top.

Do you have any advice for other small businesses?

It's almost a cliché to say, but if you want to start a new business, the only difference between jumping in now or 2 months from now is the head start you’d have if you began today. So my advice would be to jump in with 2 feet. Don't put this on the back burner. Don't just rely on what you're doing now.

"Take advantage of all the tools you can, and you'll maximize your success."

There's always something you can be doing better. You can always challenge yourself and push yourself to be the best you can be. The internet's not going anywhere, so try to use it to your advantage. Take advantage of all the tools you can, and you'll maximize your success.

Published: April 21, 2022

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