Growth Hacking for eCommerce Startups

Growth Hacking for eCommerce

Many aspiring entrepreneurs love the idea of eCommerce – no infrastructure, little overhead, etc. But becoming even moderately successful in eCommerce is a herculean task for the average person. Let’s put this in perspective: Amazon is #1 in eCommerce Sales, They Outsell Their Next 12 Competitors Combined And we’re not talking about eCommerce businesses we’ve never heard of, we’re talking Walmart, Target, eBay, etc. Perhaps you’re thinking, “A lot of the top websites are too broad, we want to start niche like Amazon did when they sold only books.” Well, unless you’re selling diamond rings for dogs I doubt you’ll find a niche that has zero competition. Let’s say you want to start a shoe business and want to rank in search engines for “Shoes.” Think again. Zappos has spent the last 15 years optimizing for footwear related keywords. You think that Zappos trolling Kanye West after he called their product S&^% was a coincidence? You think they spent the time and money to produce a new video, create a new product page and push it to the press for a simple lol? Inbound links are quintessential for SEO, and that PR stunt landed them links from Gawker, The Huffington Post, E! Online, Spin and that was just from a quick Google search. Using Majestic’s site explorer, we can see that another 100+ domains point to Zappos’ viral product page. Most eCommerce businesses have trouble landing a single editorial link from any publication. 

Don’t just build an eCommerce website, build a brand.  

To be successful in eCommerce, you have to build a brand. And it’s just a coincidence that this post explores a business named, BetaBrand. If you’re a subscriber to any technology publications, they probably need no introduction. They’ve grown exponentially since I heard about their Executive Pinstripe Hoodie on TechCrunch and this post explores what they’ve done up to date. In 2005, San Francisco-based BetaBrand faced a potentially business-destroying threat:  The New York Times published a story featuring the clothing retailer, and hundreds of thousands of people nationwide descended on the website, hoping to snatch up the latest fashions. The company was two weeks old. BetaBrand – then operating as – was in serious danger of being defeated by their own success.  As a startup, they didn’t have the staff, resources or infrastructure to meet the sudden onslaught of orders.  So the CEO, Chris Lindland, started sending out e-mails to customers – but not just any old e-mails:  He turned out to be a great comedy writer, and his jokes kept people engaged and entertained while they endured delays of up to two to three months before BetaBrand could fill their orders.  They also contained earnest explanations of the predicament the company faced, descriptions of the efforts they were making to fill the orders as quickly as possible, and apologies for customers’ inconvenience. In other words, the e-mails were honest, funny and sincere, and reached customers at a personal level.  Ultimately, they worked.  BetaBrand not only survived the initial rush of demand, but went on to achieve explosive growth in successive years, with a large, devoted customer base, robust sales and plenty of venture capital money lining its pockets.  But the initial experience of those e-mails, in which Lindland desperately searched for a way to make a personal connection to thousands of customers in order to keep them happy while they waited, would go on to form the core of BetaBrand’s marketing strategy. Lindland describes is as a simple motto: ” 99% fiction, 1% fashion.”  He realized something that fiction writers – and every fan of shows like Game of Thrones or Downton Abbey – already knew:  If you can tell a great story, you can keep people hooked.  This focus on narrative has informed multiple innovative, wildly popular viral marketing campaigns, and in the process, has helped BetaBrand grow into a household name in fashion.

Growth Hacking for eCommerce Startups

Here are a few of (many) BetaBrand’s most memorable memes:

  1. The Executive Pinstripe Hoodie.  San Francisco is home to some of the most powerful people in the world – the CEOs of companies like Google, Facebook and PayPal.  Unlike traditional businesspeople, tech executives are just as often seen in comfortable, practical clothes as in stuffy, sartorial suits and ties.  Recognizing this, BetaBrand – itself a Bay Area tech startup – created the executive pinstripe hoodie, a piece of clothing that neatly summarized the dress ethic of countless young and iconoclastic entrepreneurs, engineers and tech workers.  In the same vein, they released “dress sweatpants” shortly thereafter.  Both pieces of clothing attracted national attention from fashion blogs and larger news media organizations. According to Majestic, the product has been linked to by over 100 domains including Forbes, Business Insider, TechCrunch, and The Verge.
  1. Using graduate students as clothing models.  Earlier this year, BetaBrand put out a call for young female students pursuing their PhDs to come and model their clothing.  By focusing the ad campaign on the models’ intelligence rather than their beauty (although all of the accomplished young women in the ads also happened to be quite beautiful), they created a counterintuitive subversion of a classic fashion stereotype.  The press ate it up – and so did consumers.
  1. Gay Jeans.  Of course, not all LGBT people are hyper-conscious about what they wear, but no one will deny fashion’s elevated status in gay culture.  Instead of taking this for granted, BetaBrand decided to capitalize on it by releasing “Gay Jeans.”  When you buy them, they’re blue – but as they break in, they reveal rainbow-colored fibers.  With classic BetaBrand humor, the company insists that straight people can wear them, too – in their FAQ, they write, “If you put on a pair of Gay Jeans and begin experiencing gayness, chances are it’s because you’re gay.”
  1. Split Testing. Want something that’s a little more directly associated with growth hacking? How about their report that Crotches are King in BetaBrand’s test of 30 different photos. Or how…
  1. They Literally Built the Worst Webpage, Ever. They wanted to hire UI/UX designer, so they changed their homepage to this to attract new candidates (and of course press):

BetaBrand Worst Website

Image Source: BusinessInsider   

All of these elements tell a story about BetaBrand – its employees, its mission and its culture, and in so doing, invites consumers to see their own reflection in that story.  This is the opposite of conventional corporate wisdom, which attempts to whitewash its communications in the hopes that they can reach the largest audience possible without alienating anyone.  BetaBrand is loud, controversial and unapologetic, and has earned its share of detractors, but it has built a ravenously loyal customer base by saying, in effect, “that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.” Of course, success in marketing doesn’t just come from telling a good story.  Many other elements in the marketing strategy have helped the clothing company grow into a powerhouse today.  Here are a few of the most important takeaways:

  • Sincerity matters.  Yes, the branding geniuses behind BetaBrand are very, very good at reaching customers in an age of overwhelming ad saturation and concurrent consumer marketing fatigue.  But this is more than just slick marketing – the brand is an authentic product of the company’s culture and values.  They are distinctly San Francisco:  A young, technology-minded and socially liberal company targeting young, technology-minded and socially liberal buyers.  The company resembles the consumers, so the products reflect common tastes and values.  It is easy – natural, even – for BetaBrand’s target market to form a personal connection with them, thus creating unbeatable brand loyalty. 
  • They aren’t afraid to pick a side.  As mentioned previously, BetaBrand clearly harbors socially liberal political values, and they are not afraid to wear those on their sleeve.  Earlier this year, the company decided to eschew traditional ads featuring impossibly lithe fashion models, and instead asked graduate students at American colleges to model their clothing.  This move delighted scores of feminists, activists and bloggers who regularly criticize the modern media’s rampant objectification of women.  These liberal culture warriors were so happy to see their ideas taking hold in popular consciousness that they ran BetaBrand’s ad campaign as a front-page story on widely-read (and widely-shared) media platforms like Gawker Media, Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post and more.
  • They were the first to field modern, powerful growth hacking techniques in the fashion industry.  Growth hacking is the interdisciplinary marriage of product development and marketing that has driven the explosive growth of many Web companies like Pinterest, AirBnB and DropBox.  Essentially, growth hackers work to design virality directly into products.  This is much easier to do for software, of course, but it’s also possible to growth hack products in the offline world with a little creativity.  Until BetaBrand came on the scene, no one had done it in the fashion industry.  By crowd-sourcing designs (meaning that customers vote on which clothing items will go on sale – BetaBrand usually launches three to five products per week) they give their customers a direct investment in the clothes they buy and a natural incentive to share the brand through social media and word-of-mouth.  Additionally, their iconic products are designed not only to be high-quality and fashion-forward, but also to build brand identification.  The sales of executive hoodies and sweatpants are not insubstantial, but the brand definition and identification those products provide are priceless.  Similarly, Gay Jeans are a functional, quality product – but there is a viral coefficient programmed right into the rainbow-colored fibers that has already inspired widely-shared memes in the press and on various LGBT blogs and social media groups.

eCommerce growth is much more than SEO. One of the owners at Iris Impressions, a fashion company with many competitors, asked me, “How can we differentiate ourselves from our many competitors?” The answer is so simple, yet there’s so much that goes into it – build a brand. It’s difficult to differentiate a brand in any industry – the market is crowded with more producers, and more savvy marketing teams, than at any time in history.  It’s especially difficult to do so in fashion, with its highly cyclical nature and penchant for flavor-of-the-month designers that quickly pique buyers’ interest – and lose it just as quickly. BetaBrand’s customers are fiercely loyal because they do more than consume the products – they identify themselves with the clothing, and in so doing, advertise the brand to their friends, family, co-workers and social media circles.  That personal connection between consumer and brand, and BetaBrand’s wild success in an exceedingly difficult industry, is a direct result of the narrative-based marketing strategy – the mythology around the company that it has worked so hard to create and to maintain.


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