By Karen Rivedal
The Wisconsin State Journal.
Kelly Ehlers runs a growing business that helps other businesses use social media to build their brands.
Ideas That Evoke began in 2009 as a sole proprietorship and today employs 18 on the third floor of an office building at 34 Schroeder Court, just off Whitney Way and the Beltline on Madison’s Southwest Side.
But while the company’s office has a physical location, what Ehlers and her staff of graphic designers, writers and account managers do there is strictly virtual, developing social media strategies that unfold online across digital platforms, incorporating web-based and mobile apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
It’s essentially an advertising agency, Ehlers said, but one aimed purely at creating social media-generated “conversations” between businesses and their customers, or potential customers, to increase brand awareness and, ultimately, sales.
Ehlers, 36, moved to Madison four years ago from Phoenix with her husband, Christopher, who is from Madison and works as vice president of operations for William Ryan Homes. Kelly Ehlers grew up in Iowa, attended Iowa State University and worked in advertising for agencies in the Phoenix area for about 12 years before starting her own business.
At the time, she was five months pregnant with the first of two children — both boys, now ages 5 and 2. She hired her first two employees in 2011.
Thanks to its fast growth, an almost entirely female staff and a deep roster of national clients in the salon, beauty, lifestyle and luxury markets — including Procter & Gamble, Clairol Professional and Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spas — Ehler’s company has won several national and international awards. In April, Ehlers earned an Enterprising Woman of the Year award from Enterprising Women magazine’s annual tribute to top women business owners in law, finance and advertising.
Question: What was your animating vision for the company?
A: I started this with the intent of being as niche in what we do as possible. That was about the time when Facebook really started to open up things for businesses, and Twitter was a hot topic. … I noticed brands were starting to pay more attention to social media then.
Q: What exactly does your company do for clients?
A: We work with brands to understand how they can talk to their consumer base in the social digital world. What that means for us is solving business challenges through social media, whether a company is struggling with general brand awareness, or (getting) sales leads, or recruitment. We work with brands to say where is the overarching business challenge and how can we communicate with the right audience to help solve some of those business challenges using social media.
So we work with them to develop a strategy and a voice and an aesthetic, like a visual identity, for their social media. Then we handle it turnkey for them, from designing it to writing it to posting content on their Facebook page and other social media channels. Any conversations that are happening online, we respond on behalf of the brand and serve as an extension of their marketing team, with a pulse on all things social. That could mean Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, Snapchat, blogging or YouTube — any social media.
Q: How does social media work best for business?
A: For us, social media is a conversation, almost with a friend. It’s this two-way dialogue. It’s witty. It’s asking questions. It’s asking for feedback and it’s sharing it. It’s fun. Way down the line come the selling of the product.
Q: Describe a successful campaign you’ve done.
A: We did a great campaign for Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spas. They’ve got 30 spas and salons across the country, and we wanted to … make some money (for the client) by generating foot traffic through their social media. So we came up with this idea called ‘Social Cash.’
We knew that people were leaving the spa feeling beautiful — their hair was done, or their makeup or their nails — and they were taking selfies (which are self-portraits shot with a mobile phone’s camera) and sharing them on their social networks. We wanted to capitalize on that moment and reward people for doing it. So we came up with this idea to promote the spas’ blow dryer bar. … We introduced it in New York and it’s rolled national now.The idea was to get a (hair) blow out and then take a selfie and bring it up to the cash register to get $10 off the cost of your blow out. We had people doing this who had thousands of fans or followers on social media. For that $10, we were then, by way of their social channels, getting advertising that was creating new foot traffic.
Q: What draws you to this kind of work?
A: The challenge. When I started (the company) in 2009, there was no such thing as a “social media agency.” It was a new way of communicating and one that I took upon myself to pioneer from a business standpoint. At first, the concept of hiring for or outsourcing social media to an individual, an agency was a foreign thought. There was a great deal of resistance from marketing teams and business owners.
(But) today, social media is one of the most effective, measurable tools in a company’s marketing mix, one that shouldn’t be ignored. That’s what excites me.
Q: What still surprises you about what you do?
A: I am kind of amazed to think that our team is made up of individuals who all grew up with this — our average employee age is about 25 — and I didn’t. I remember in my senior year of high school, we had a class on how to search the World Wide Web, and that was ’97. … To think that I have a business that participates in a world that wasn’t even around 10 years ago is mind-blowing. That’s kind of fun and occasionally that’s what keeps me up at night, with what’s next.
— Interview by Karen Rivedal