Caitlin Bigelow, an employee with Rokenbok Toy Company, prepares for a video shoot. On the decline for years, Rokenbok has reversed course by embracing video to demonstrate its toys, receiving recognition from Google. Photo by Jared Whitlock

Solana Beach toy company is on the forefront of marketing trend

COAST CITIES — Rokenbok Toy Company in Solana Beach was in survival mode four years ago. Do or die. 

The problem wasn’t Rokenbok’s product. The small company’s high-tech toys have been a hit at trade shows for more than 15 years. Parents and kids praised designs that some called Nintendo-meets-Lego. The company’s woes, it was determined, were due to distribution and marketing.

“Wherever we set the toys up for people to play with they were wowed,” said Paul Eichen, who founded Rokenbok in 1995 and grew up in Solana Beach. “But demonstrating what was in the box was key. Static images didn’t cut it.”

In 2009, Rokenbok reinvented itself by shooting and posting videos of its toys on YouTube, joining a trend of companies that rely on online video to promote their products. For its efforts, Google recently selected Rokenbok as one of nine companies in the U.S. for its new YouTube Marketing Ambassadors program, which highlights the best of small-business video advertising.

Before YouTube, Rokenbok devoted its marketing budget to display tables at toy stores across the nation. Kids and parents passing by the display tables could try Rokenbok’s unique building blocks, remote-controlled dump trucks and sophisticated railways, as well as other designs. Or better yet, sales associates gave hands on demonstrations of the company’s toys. It’s how Rokenbok gained new customers. To Eichen’s chagrin, it didn’t last.

Squeezed by a tougher economy and the rise of online retailers, small toy stores started disappearing about a decade ago. Big-box stores increasingly favored less sales associates and simplified layouts that didn’t include display tables. Without a place for customers to interact with Rokenbok products, the company struggled for more than five years. Rokenbok eventually decided direct marketing and video were the answer. The new strategy, however, presented its own challenges.

“We built a website that demonstrated our toys using video,” Eichen said. “We realized we had to get people there. Ads on architecture and engineering websites — we tried a lot things that didn’t work.”

Rokenbok began a new chapter in 2009. The company wrote quirky, narrative-driven scripts starring its toys. Rokenbok shot the videos at its office — a mad-scientist lab brimming with toy parts — and put them on YouTube.

After some trial and error, the new videos proved to be engaging. YouTube metrics showed high retention rates among younger viewers throughout Rokenbok’s three-minute videos. Rokenbok discovered storytelling and characters, not talking heads, were critical for its videos. Not only was Rokenbok connecting with viewers, but the company finally had another way of showing its toys in action.

Rokenbok also found an easily accessible audience in YouTube, the second-largest search engine in the world. To attract specific viewers, Rokenbok bid on vetted keywords, increasing the likelihood of its videos appearing higher in relevant YouTube searches — a Google AdWords tool that’s now been extended to YouTube. As a result, Rokenbok now estimates that it gains 50 percent of new customers from its YouTube videos.

Del Mar resident Daniel Burrus, a business consultant to companies like IBM and best-selling author of Flash Foresight, said online video, once an afterthought, is increasingly important for companies.

“Companies use websites like Facebook and Twitter and think that’s all they have to do for a web presence,” Burrus said. “Video is the most underutilized tool. Smart companies use an integrated, all-of-the-above approach.”

Video is the fastest growing online ad category. For good reason, according to Burrus. Consumers have grown tired of slick ads that talk down to them. Businesses can use YouTube and other video services to communicate with customers in a way that’s entertaining and down to earth — more conversation than advertisement. And producing online videos is often affordable for companies.

“Many grew up in an era when film was expensive,” Burrus said. “With DSLRs, that’s just not the case anymore.”

The medium also allows for more range than traditional media. Online video can be a how-to, tell a story and highlight satisfied customers. Some Rokenbok fans, for example, post videos showing them playing with the toys.

“Advertising is no longer a one-way street,” Burrus said. “Consumers have the power to endorse or sink companies with their online impressions.”

Other San Diego companies have embraced online video as an educational tool. Take Shaper Studios, a new business that offers surfboard-making lessons. According to Chris Clark, chief executive officer and founder of Shaper Studios, video is the business’ primary vehicle to get the word out.

“The concept can be a bit confusing at first for newcomers,” Clark said. “People get it when they see our videos on our website.”

Shaper Studios doesn’t only use video to explain what it does. It also records customers making surfboards and sends the video to them once they’re finished, a strategy Clark compared to skydiving companies. As for the future, Clark said forthcoming Shaper Studios videos will have more of a documentary feel.

“People will get to see the innovative surfers we’re working with and maybe even some of our challenges as company — it’s honest,” Clark said. “Those are types of videos that are interesting to people.”