O Sawdust City Brewing, Where Art Thou Website? Or: Why Startups Need An Awesome Digital Strategy

Posted by JD McNamara on February 08, 2014

Full disclosure: I would love to work with a brewery. I’m an evolving beer geek and I’m super excited about what’s happening with the Ontario craft beer scene. It would be a dream to help an up-and-coming Ontario brewery with their marketing.

Since I’m going to be slightly critical, I suppose I should start off by mentioning that I’m a big Sawdust City Brewing fan. In fact, I got the idea for this piece after visiting the Sawdust City website numerous times over the past couple months. Lone Pine IPA and Long, Dark Voyage to Uranus are great beers, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about Ol’ Woody Alt. My family also owns a cottage in Gravenhurst - Sawdust City’s home location - so you can be damn sure I’ll visit the brewery once or thrice this coming summer.

So what’s the problem? Well, if you clicked on the beer links above, you’ll know that I linked out to the beers’ respective BeerAdvocate pages as opposed to a page on Sawdust City Brewing’s website. Why did I do that? As you can probably guess from the title of my article: because they don’t really have a website.

Mother Of God Super Troopers

I guess that’s only kinda true. Head Brewmaster and half the brains at Sawdust City, Sam Corbeil, posts and maintains a blogspot blog, the scary part of which is he’s actually a really good and entertaining writer. But I have no earthly idea why, way back in 2011, he started a Blogger instead of his own Sawdust City Brewing website.

What's the Big Deal?

To shed a little more light on why it’s such a big deal that Sawdust City doesn’t seem to have a digital marketing strategy even though they’ve existed for over three years and are two months away from opening their brewery, consider my personal experience with the Sawdust City brand. First, the beer is very good. As far as breaking the barriers to entry for craft beer in Ontario, the beer being great is a solid start. Sawdust’s stuff is good and it’s in no shortage of bars in Toronto as well as on the shelves of the LCBO (government run liquor stores...talk about a barrier to entry!). They’ve had a product that they know is going to work in the market they’re entering for at least two years. So that’s when they should’ve started developing a strategy.

Now to be fair, obviously Sawdust has engaged in many forms of marketing. They attend tons of beer festivals, they get their beers into bars and stores, they give interviews for articles about the new brewery and do all kinds of product related outreach. Their branding on the bottles is pretty cool and memorable and, as I mentioned, Corbeil has been posting for three years on his loosely branded Blogger with everything from random beer updates to pictures of their new building’s progress. But yet the page at www.sawdustcitybrewing.com reads: “Our website, like our physical site, is currently under construction. Please check back often to watch our progress.” And who knows how long it’s been like that (I’ve been to that URL maybe 10+ times in the last six months, hoping for a real site).

Sawdust City Brewing

I know, I know, Corbeil and the rest of the small Sawdust team are probably insanely busy. I get it. I started a business too and there are plenty of things that I want to do that I haven’t found time for yet. But a company’s website is the beating heart of its digital presence and should be the centre of its marketing flywheel. I truly believe that far too many businesses underestimate just how important these things are and even though I love what Sawdust City is doing on the beer front, they are a prime example of a company neglecting their digital strategy (and in this case, their website, which is still plaguing many more businesses than you would even think possible).

Beyond the beer, my brand experience with Sawdust City has been fairly broken. I’ve read a few of Corbeil’s blog posts and while they’re enjoyable, I always end up disappointed because I know they could’ve been cultivating a really special community had they followed a simple strategy and built even just a basic website to begin with. From what I know about Ontario liquor laws and how difficult it must be to start actually selling craft beer, I’m guessing that it definitely pays to be popular, so I imagine that the goal for all startup breweries is to attract as many fans and brand advocates as possible. The more people you have wanting your beer the quicker you’ll have success.

More Strategy = Less Confusion

If you’re still having trouble seeing why I’ve got my panties in a bunch over a website, let’s take a look at some numbers. This is pretty basic stuff, but according to Open Site Explorer, these are the number of external links pointing to the main Sawdust City site and the Blogger site:

Link Stats

What this means is that one of the domains has 619 links directing people to it and the other has 145. Most of these links are from beer related articles or industry sites like BeerAdvocate that are pointing people toward Sawdust City Brewing’s digital space. The first problem is that since there are currently two digital properties, you have various sites and articles confused as to where to point interested readers. The second issue, if you haven’t already guessed, is that the site with more links is the inactive one, which means most people are being sent to a dead end (and trust me, a very, very small percentage of people will click through to the Blogger site from the under construction page, which is the small print circled in the above screenshot). This setup isn’t consistent or optimal. At best, Sawdust City fanatics are following along with the Blogger posts, but that domain is floating haphazardly across the digital landscape and eventually won’t exist. At worst, people who are curious about Sawdust City’s beer can’t find the correct information about it or just assume, from looking at their stagnant website, that they’re not a very serious company.

A website is like a digital office and like it or not, people’s first impression of your website is often their first impression of your company and its products (or services). In this case, we’re talking about beer, which is a product that can actually speak for itself if it tastes great, but nobody can tell me that marketing doesn’t matter in the beer industry. There’s a reason why the stuff that tastes like water sells more than anything else, right?

Lessons Learned: Always Strive to Do Better Marketing, Even As a Startup

In the long run, Sawdust City will be fine. I’m sure they’ll get their website done eventually, at which point they should migrate all the Blogger content to the blog on their new site and properly redirect all the old URLs. Then, the 619 and 145 links will all point to the same place, the new site will look much better and deliver a cohesive brand experience. But there’s a lesson here: the branding and marketing could’ve started a long time ago and, probably, Sawdust City would have a much bigger following than they currently have. Remember, I personally know a lot about them, but I’m a beer geek. What about the Molson Canadian-slugging market that all Ontario craft breweries need to tap into to really take off? There’s always room to be better, and in this case, Sawdust City has missed an opportunity to get the ball rolling. I just hope they take note and at least consider a strategy for their digital presence.

For comparison’s sake, let’s take a look at another new Toronto startup: Left Field Brewery (please click the link, it’s important to my point). Nice! A full-fledged, awesomely branded website. They’ve even got dedicated pages for each of their beers so I can read about them straight from the horse’s mouth. Left Field Brewery clearly has a strategy and as far as I can tell, they’re delivering on it. Oh yeah, by the way, these guys don’t have a physical brewery yet either (and I’m fairly positive they only officially ‘launched’ in 2013). Planning and strategy ftw.

Left Field Brewery

What They Could Have Done

I've touched on a few of things Sawdust City could have done but I'll briefly summarize and make some more general comments that apply to all startups:

1. Be mindful of your digital presence. Don't just let the chips fall where they may and hope for the best. As soon as you've got a good product, give your customers the best brand experience you possibly can. When I say brand experience, I mean everything from how a beer tastes when it touches your customers lips to the type of information they find on your website; when one is good and the other is disappointing, they work against each other.

2. Have a marketing plan. This is the one that I've harped on the most and that's because it really is that important. I realize that everything doesn't always go to plan but that's all the more reason to sit down and map it out. Once you have a blueprint to work from, you can always adapt and reorganize. But if you've got nothing but an idea in your head and things go awry, there's nowhere to turn.

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3. Build around a website. Home base, digital office, central hub - your website is all of these things, so don't neglect it. As a startup, it doesn't need to be the first or even the second thing you do, but once you have a product that people are paying for, it's time to set up shop and be where people expect you to be.

4. Use the right free tools. Instead of putting their brand in the hands of Blogger, Sawdust City could've set up a Launchrock page on the domain (if they weren't going to be able to get a website up, this would've been the next best option). With the amount of links pointing at that page, who knows how many emails they could've had by now. And instead of posting updates to Blogger, they could've sent updates via email to people who have actually said, "I want to hear about your company and your products."

What They Should Do Now

I've been critical of Sawdust City Brewing in this post but it's only because I'm a fan (well that, and I can't turn off my marketing brain). I think that I've been constructively critical though, and to cement that notion, here are some of the things I think they could do now to get their digital marketing efforts on track:

1. Launch website ASAP. Tomorrow, if possible. This post will probably have a short shelf-life anyway, so the first thing Sawdust City could do is build and launch their site.

2. Kill and migrate the blog. As mentioned above, this is the only option. Keeping the blog separate once the site is live is no good and removing it without redirecting the pages to the new site (where they'll need to be formatting and reposted) would render the posts a colossal waste of time. It'll take some doing but it's worth it in the long run.

3. Definitely keep creating content. One of the cool things about Sawdust City is that Sam likes to write and create content. I'm not sure how much time he'll have to do that once they're up and running, but he could still have a say in what they're creating and chip in here and there. I think there's a ton of opportunity for content in the craft beer industry because there are two distinct target markets: beer geeks who are into craft beer and curious macro-drinkers who just need a little nudge in the right direction. That second group is especially appealing because there's not a lot out there. A quick search for "beginner's guide to craft beer" reveals some rather underwhelming results, so just as an example, some sort of big content piece aimed at educating curious Coors and Canadian drinkers as to how they can get started with craft beer would do extremely well.

An Open Offer

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So yeah, being a digital marketer, I’m of the opinion that Left Field Brewery’s marketing approach is more efficient than Sawdust City’s. I also love what Muskoka Brewery and Beau’s are doing with their digital marketing efforts. The craft brewing community in Ontario is growing, but it’s still pretty small and many of these guys are friends, so it isn’t my intention to compare one to the other in a negative way. I wish nothing but the best for Sawdust City and Left Field, and I’m sure that I’ll be drinking lots of beers from both breweries in the near future. In fact, if anybody from any of the Ontario breweries wants to talk beer and marketing, just give me the time and place and I’ll be there - you bring the beer, I’ll bring the marketing!

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