Melissa Clayton, founder and CEO of Tiny Tags, a seven-year-old jewelry designer based in Acton, Massachusetts, wanted more moms--and those seeking gifts for moms--to visit her company's website.

Generally speaking, prospective customers liked the jewelry they found on the site. The challenge was luring visitors there in the first place. 

Of course, this is a key challenge for many online businesses. Most address the challenge through so-called "inbound" marketing: luring qualified sales leads and prospective customers to your site through blog content, social media promotion, and ever-evolving search-engine-optimization best practices, honing in on search words customers are likely to use.

There's no shortage of companies eager to abet the inbound marketing efforts of growing businesses like Tiny Tags. But for the cost-conscious Clayton, a free or do-it-yourself method is always the first option. So she held off on a professional consultation, and set her mind on finding an alternative solution.

She found it last autumn, while reading the Northeastern University alumni magazine. Specifically, she read an article about how a team of undergrads had helped revive and rebrand a local cafe on the verge of bankruptcy. 

The students performed the consultation as part of their "Small Business Management, Operations, and Growth" course taught by Kimberly A. Eddleston, Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation. 

Clayton, who'd earned her CPA at Northeastern, emailed Eddleston, seeking a student team to help her tackle her inbound marketing challenges. "I spoke with Kimberly two times, before the students came on board, then I met with the students," recalls Clayton. 

In addition to taking a deep dive into Tiny Tags SEO situation, the students--Yashasvat Kapur, Mariana Romero, Chi Dang, and Karla Bonilla--conducted three types of surveys: 

  • An eight-question online survey sent to the 3,515 customers in Tiny Tags database, via Constant Contact, an online marketing service.
  • A six-question survey through which the rest of their colleagues in Eddleston's class could give their opinions on the Tiny Tags web site, its email marketing efforts, and its jewelry packaging. 
  • One-on-one interviews with professors at Northeastern who were part of Tiny Tags' target customer group: mothers and those who buy gifts for mothers. The students asked the professors the same questions they asked their classmates, but aimed for a more in-depth analysis. 

Here's what they learned: Customers wanted to see more visuals across all marketing channels. Specifically, customers wanted to see more photos of what the jewelry looked like when people were wearing it (as opposed to basic product shots). 

The students isolated a key finding by asking the basic question: What should Tiny Tags improve upon? "Although the majority of respondents said nothing should be improved, about 25% of them mentioned that prices should be more accessible," notes Bonilla. 

To act on this finding, the students worked with Clayton to devise a holiday campaign for Black Friday weekend, and recommended that Tiny Tags offer regular sales promotions during occasions such as Mother's Day and Valentine's Day. 

As for Tiny Tags' SEO efforts, the students incorporated roughly 450 keywords into the Tiny Tags site, so it would show up more in search engines based on the terms prospective customers were using. "I was really focused on 'gift for mom'," says Clayton. "But a lot people are searching under 'personalized jewelry.'"

There were other tweaks, even adding the various plural versions of 'gift for mom' ('gifts for mom,' 'gift for moms,' 'gifts for moms') to the keywords mix. The students didn't just help Clayton identify these words and phrases; they called the provider of her ecommerce site, learned how to code all of the products with the pertinent key words, and then did the actual coding using 3-D Cart (the software that runs the Tiny Tags site).

"Initially, it seemed like a daunting task to complete because I am not much of a techie," admits Bonilla. "However, as I began to watch online webinars the tasks became more and more attainable. The tutorials were really effective in guiding me in the right direction."

But did all of these changes boost sales? Yes. Tiny Tags' sales were up 88 percent from Q4 2013 to Q4 2014.

"And I think a good portion of that was related to the email marketing campaign that the students helped create and implement for Black Friday weekend," says Clayton.

"The students feedback was to have more images and less text in our emails and to send more reminders and follow-up emails during the entire week," she adds. "Email marketing generated 23 percent of holiday sales in 2014 versus just 6.5 percent in 2013."

As for the keyword and SEO parts of the project, Clayton says they are still in transition. "The students gave us very good information on what reports to look at to help us understand how customers are coming to the site and if they are purchasing and if they are not purchasing," she notes. "Since the final report, we have been using these reports and are still getting our arms around the data."

The "final" report Clayton refers to is a 93-page document the students delivered in December, complete with graphics, summaries, a memorandum of understanding, and a SWOT analysis. Eddleston proofread the report before it was finalized. What impressed the professor most was the way the students taught themselves the SEO rudiments before applying them to Tiny Tags. 

"The students had to learn how to do it, by doing it," explains Eddleston. "And that's part of my course. I know if you can learn how to do it in a semester, then you're really figuring it out."

The lesson is an essential concept of entrepreneurship: If you don't know how to do something, teach yourself. For example, another group of Eddleston's student-consultants recently made an educational video for their client, even though--prior to the project--none of them had any video experience. 

For the Tiny Tags report, Eddleston says she stressed the same tenets she usually does: Base your feedback on data (survey results, Google analytics) and deliver any harsh news with empathy and sensitivity for the client. "Don't call anyone's baby ugly," is how she sums it up.

"The key is to make [the students] realize that it's the entrepreneurs dream they're working on, not theirs," she adds.

For example, a few professors participating in the Tiny Tags survey said they thought the company's packaging was too personal (it featured an image of Clayton and one of her three sons). At the time of the survey, Clayton was already implementing new packaging. Nonetheless, the students were careful to frame this critique as a survey finding about the packaging. 

Clayton remains thrilled to have received such detailed feedback on her growing company. "It's just great to have a fresh set of eyes on my business and web site," she says. "They really got down to the honest truth."