M.T.H Electric Trains
Acquia and Drupal Construction Help M.T.H. Electric Trains Leverage Social Media to Build Market Share
Learn how M.T.H migrated their site from Cold Fusion to Drupal and how Acquia Search's faceted navigation enables users to easily parse the 18,000 products housed on this unique ecommerce site.
With a 30-year anniversary just around the corner, M.T.H. is the young upstart in the model railroading business. To compete with model train brands that are over a century old, M.T.H. relies upon a unique, effective business strategy. By innovating interactive technology and offering unequaled selection, M.T.H. is igniting new interest in model railroading.
Understanding M.T.H.’s Market Strategy
M.T.H.’s market strategy has paid substantial dividends, enjoying sustained growth and increasing market share. Andy Edleman, vice president of marketing at M.T.H., explains the challenges and opportunities unique to the model train industry;
Legacy brands survive by licensing their brand and leveraging nostalgia. Baby boomers return to a childhood brand later in life, as a leisure investment. Then they share the trains with their children, nephews, nieces and grandchildren. M.T.H. isn’t venerable enough to have a recognizable childhood brand. Besides, nostalgia might feel nice, but it’s a one-dimensional business plan.
M.T.H. thrives on our inventory — we have over 18,000 unique SKUs, and add 1,500 new ones each year. We build models, sets and accessories to every standard scale — more than our competition, combined. This allows us to reach broader markets, address cost considerations, and serve enthusiasts who delve into larger scale systems.
We are innovating interactive technology to interest younger audiences – without losing the traditional appeal for our valued customers. For example, M.T.H. trains have digital sound effects that dynamically interact with our accessories, and vice versa. New sounds can be downloaded from our site, then edited and installed into our products. Our handheld devices control dozens of railroad features including engines, tracks and landscape elements. It’s one thing to watch a model engine go around in a figure eight – it’s another thing entirely when you interact with a chain of events happening across your model railroad. We’ve taken the interactivity of computer gaming and applied it to the tactile setting of model railroading. That’s something that older hobbyists, their kids and grandkids can enjoy together.
– Andy Edleman, Vice President of Marketing at M.T.H.
Using Online Innovation to Manage Partners and Attract Customers
As Andy mentioned, the rise of large toy store chains contributed to the diminishing popularity of quality model trains. In fact, super stores offering a huge selection of inexpensive toys are a significant threat to “mom and pop” retail hobby shops. For a manufacturer of high-end railway models, “big box” stores will never become suitable distribution outlets; M.T.H. relies on these imperiled independent hobby stores. The challenge with hobby stores is proximity and available inventory. There are roughly 3,500 hobby stores in the United States, with only 1/3 carrying model trains; many train enthusiasts do not live close to an accessible inventory. Independent retailers often
do not have enough operating revenue or floor space to offer an exhaustive range of M.T.H.’s inventory.
Developed in the 1990’s, M.T.H.’s web site included features designed to address these challenges. M.T.H. committed to putting the entire inventory online, making it available for user searching. Users could search every model at every scale and system. M.T.H. also provided a mechanism for customers to find local retailers that carry a desired product. The site allowed M.T.H. to better market products and connects consumers with the partner channel.
Reflecting M.T.H.’s forward thinking embrace of technology, the legacy site boasted an early precursor to social media. My M.T.H. was a customer area where users could build a catalog list of the products they owned, a wish list of desired products, and exclusive offers. The site also provided the ability for retailers to login and review account status details, including invoice and purchase order status.
Customers could also enhance their railroading experience through downloading patches, sound effects and other software components — ready to install directly into their trains and accessories. Each product had available product documentation to help seasonal enthusiasts who may have misplaced a product’s user manual. A limited, externally hosted shopping portal allowed users to order My M.T.H. accessories. While far short of today’s social media standards, the site was fairly robust for its time, and helped M.T.H. build relationships with customers.
The Site Goes Off the Rails
The original site was built and managed by a single skilled Webmaster. His work combined a 3rd party database with custom coded Cold Fusion web pages and scripts. User interfaces allowed content, including text and images, to be submitted by non- technical authors. The site was a success, until it hit a serious snag.
The Webmaster developed a debilitating chronic ailment, and left on permanent disability. While the company had expressed a desire to keep his work accessible and well documented, they discovered that this was not the case. With unintelligible file extensions, counter-intuitive taxonomies, and substantial custom coding, M.T.H. found themselves the owner of a cryptic, custom “black box” web site. IT struggled to make minor changes and updates to new content, but it was a time-intensive process that yielded very modest results. After a couple of years of limping along with the custom site, M.T.H.’s management decided it was time to resolve the issue once and for all.
M.T.H. retained the services and expertise of Drupal Construction, an Acquia Ready Partner, and tasked its development team with an ambitious and important goal — develop a site that could offer all of the previous functionality and support new features and growth, and so in a way that would not be dependent on any one individual for support and management.
“M.T.H. could have opted for a new, custom coded site,” said Mike Taylor, Lead Developer at Drupal Construction, “but that would have been repeating the same mistake. We spent over a month working with M.T.H. to understand their business plan, and what they needed their site to do to meet their goals. As a result, we understood that what M.T.H. really needed was a solution based on an Open Source platform. They needed the flexibility of a custom solution, while retaining the dependability of a standardized, turnkey framework that could be supported. We felt these requirements clearly pointed to Drupal as the framework of choice.”
Getting Back On Track With Drupal
One of the concerns shared by Drupal Construction and M.T.H. was the ability to build and support the new site in Drupal in a cost-effective way. “With thousands of modules,” said Mike, “and tens of thousands of inventory items, we were concerned about whether Drupal, or any Open Source technology could meet the complexity needs.”
Drupal Construction’s concerns were addressed at DrupalDelphia, a local Drupal event held in Philadelphia, when they discovered Acquia. Mike was discussing some of M.T.H.’s technical and marketing requirements with one of the presenters, when he suggested Mike contact Acquia to discuss their services. The provider of commercial support for Open Source Drupal offered three key comforts — the ability to accelerate deployment, the reliability of dedicated support, and a solution that would improve the usability and performance of their inventory search feature.
Acquia Eases Migration Challenges
“Acquia really delivered,” Mike explained. “I had used the standard Drupal core package before. I hadn’t even known there was an Acquia packaging of Drupal. When I opened it, all of the modules I needed were there. Everything was up-to-date with patches and support ready. When it comes to support, I can’t say enough. These guys are great. Responsive, effective and professional — they have just been unbelievable. It’s hard to imagine that this level of support comes at a fraction of the cost of commercial, proprietary software. Between support, initial consulting, and the Acquia package, we were able to shorten our deployment schedule from eighteen months to six months. There’s absolutely no way we could have launched that quickly without Acquia’s expertise, and their interest in our success. Acquia’s assistance was crucial
to how we imported the inventory data into MySQL, and our ability to apply Acquia Search against it.”
Making Content More Available Using Acquia Search
In addition to support and the Acquia Drupal package, M.T.H. purchased Acquia Search, Acquia’s cloud-based search service — an important part of the new M.T.H. site’s success. While much of the Drupal-based site was based on recreating existing features (albeit in standardized and easier to manage ways), search was an opportunity for serious improvement. With over 18,000 SKUs available for searching, M.T.H.’s search experience was frustrating and its performance slow. Acquia Search, a cloud-based offering that delivers Apache SOLR search as a plug-and-play hosted service, offered substantial performance improvements — partially because of its mature architecture and because it did not reside on the same server as the inventory data. On the user experience side, the ability to introduce faceted, or filtered, searching totally transformed the user search experience.
“When you have almost 20,000 searchable products, the weight of inventory can become a knife that cuts both ways.” Andy recalled, “Sure – we can boast the deepest cache of available products. But consider a customer that can’t find what they are looking for - or can’t even tell if what they’ve found is what they want? You pay a heavy opportunity cost in unhappy customers, or people who simply walk away.” Through faceted searching, users are able to find products with a minimum of mouse- clicks, and are able to tell with full certainty that products meet their scale and product line requirements.
Full Steam Ahead Into the Benefits of Social Media
In under six months, Drupal Construction was able to bring the site live. Since the launch in December 2009, M.T.H. has enjoyed 100% uptime and no serious problems. Andy cites substantially increased traffic and a sustained growth in users since the relaunch. The direct feedback from customers and members has been uniformly positive. Much of the warm response is aimed at the improved search capabilities.
M.T.H. employees, who have changed how they search for content, are demonstrating the effectiveness of Acquia Search. Because of the confusing and underperforming legacy site search tools, employees previously accessed inventory databases directly. Database searching was no simple task, but easier than using the legacy site. With Acquia Search filters and rapid results, employees are now relying on the customer- facing site to answer their own inventory questions.
Andy is pleased with the internal benefits of Acquia Search. “We’ve gone from employees searching the database and paper records literally for hours, to employees finding what they need in less than a minute. That results in cost savings and employees who are less frustrated and more efficient in their work.”
With the ability to tag and relate inventory, customers can now find related products, including specialty licensed collectibles, that were previously very hard to discover on the site.
M.T.H. now has ambitious plans to have Drupal Construction expand their Drupal strategy for managing the retail partner channel and improving the user experience for railway modeling enthusiasts. For member users, the My M.T.H. program has been continued, with enhancements planned. Users will be able to post, share and comment on image, audio and video media, as well as create blog-driven microsites. “Consider the difference,” explains Andy Edleman. “On the old site, My M.T.H. was a very user-focused feature. Specifically, it was all about that user creating an independently oriented destination. It was ‘Your trains’ - online, and enjoyed mostly by yourself. The new, Drupal-powered M.T.H. is community focused. It’s not just about users posting content for their own satisfaction – it’s about sharing enthusiasm, experience, and expertise across a community of like-minded fans of model trains.
“It’s part of our forward thinking approach to railway modeling. While we are happy to have an online experience result directly in a transaction, we want to offer something more. By asserting ourselves as an online destination for the larger group of model train enthusiasts, we do two important things. First, we are raising the visibility of railway modeling as a hobby and lifestyle. Second, we are building our brand by associating it so closely to the rich heritage of model trains, and serving those who truly enjoy it.”
M.T.H. has never been about following the market. By using Open Source Drupal, the company can more effectively bring its unique approach and offerings to model railway devotees. With Acquia, M.T.H. can be confident that their investment in Drupal will continue to bring strong returns, and its site will enjoy increased traffic while operating with maximum uptime.
Acquia helps organizations of all sizes build social publishing websites quickly, easily and with a lower total cost of ownership by leveraging Drupal, the Open Source social publishing platform that blends content and community. Our products, services and support enable companies to leverage the power, technical innovation and economic value of Drupal while simplifying the experience, removing the complexity and minimizing the risk. Please visit: http://acquia.com. Download Acquia Drupal, the completely free Drupal distribution, at http://acquia.com/downloads.
- Custom coding was difficult to maintain
- Site was not flexible enough to keep pace with innovation
- Ineffective searching did not satisfy customers
- Search engine and page load performance improvements
- Information is more accessible
- Reliable Open Source platform can be maintained with ease
- Drupal is connecting M.T.H. with customers and distributors