Host Ryan Alford and producer Reiley Clark share practical steps to build an e-commerce strategy in 2020.
Ryan leverages his 20 years or marketing and digital experience in sharing examples and steps every brand should consider. In this episode, he highlights some of the most unique strategies he's seen, talks about how to build a better strategy, and offers practical advice on everything from platform choice to leveraging branding and performance marketing.
Get ready for another episode with Ryan and Reiley as they get into Radical's perspective on e-commerce!
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Riley Clarke [00:00:10] Welcome to the latest episode of the Radcast. This is Riley, I'm the producer, and we have Ryan Alford, our host today.
Ryan Alford [00:00:20] What's up?
Riley Clarke [00:00:22] A little role reversal is here for today.
Ryan Alford [00:00:23] I know you have the mike.
Riley Clarke [00:00:26] I just felt like it was appropriate. And scheduling out the series we're doing on e-commerce to give Radical's perspective on what's going on in the e-commerce world, your perspective on things. And I just felt like this episode was appropriate in this series.
Ryan Alford [00:00:43] Good. We do this every day. I mean, we're an e-commerce agency. So, we bring a lot of guests on because no one wants to hear me talk for 30 minutes. But in all seriousness, we do a lot of these things daily. We like to bring on others to give their perspective. But, it's important for us to share our point of view and to give our counsel on where we're seeing things because we're knee-deep in a lot of e-commerce right now. And it's definitely one of the pillars of our agency. So excited to talk about it.
Riley Clarke [00:01:16] I think it's important to just start off in terms of, you know, just the general e-com background that you've been in. What's it look like for you?
Ryan Alford [00:01:29] Well, I've been in the business for 20 years and in the marketing and agency world. And I've been a CMO in a couple of different places on the client-side and primarily on the agency side. And the last 10 years, though, have been the first 10 years were more traditional media, traditional branding and working with large brands. I did a spell five years in New York and worked at some of the largest agencies in the world on some of the largest brands in the world. And most of that was traditional media, a lot of brick and mortar, a lot of retail, but not necessarily eCom. But we transitioned into some of that in my latter stages in New York and then definitely in my role since, interestingly enough, the one detour that I took. I'll talk about some of the brands that I've worked on, agency side on e-com. But I started with a friend in Florida, one of the first online digital car buying platforms. And so there's car-buying e-commerce. This is in 2013. It was called I Drive on Demand. And we had a search engine and things like that where we actually it was as much a logistics company as it was e-commerce. We used digital marketing and the web to attract leads and we did a lot of the processing online. So I still considered an e-commerce transaction, but a lot of it was auction networks. We would allow people to custom purchase the used car that they want. They could come and tell us, I want a silver BMW325. This was 2013. And I wanted with these features and we would go through our auction networks and do some searches. And then we facilitated the entire transaction online for the most part. And so Carvana has now made it mainstream.
But we were doing it. It was a different way because Carvana is doing what most users do. And what we learned was the difficulty, if you don't own the inventory, it can be difficult to source exactly what you need. We were able to do it on a niche level. We did seven figures in revenue within our first seven months. We were selling a lot of cars. But to scale it, if you don't own the inventory, if you aren't getting your hands on the cars and have that scale, it can be difficult. I think the model could still work potentially. But some of the wholesale stuff's gotten interesting and the whole market, it's a really messy, complicated industry. But, I learned a lot in that space, at least online. That was in 2013. Before that, working with brands like Verizon in their app and other space, we worked with their retailers and we weren't the digital agency off the record, but we worked and intertwined a lot with all of the agencies and the process of developing work that was used to their app and selling online and doing stuff on that, both on B2B and B2C. And then as an agency, we worked with other brands while helping them transition into online buying and things like that. Obviously, that's proliferated a lot more since I've been in those roles, but had an early take there and then in the car buying side. Then, I have worked at a few other agencies where both in automotive and then started radical. And so my learning in digital and in e-com has been both organically as I consider myself a curious soul. So I've self-taught in the last 10 years in many ways and constant curiosity and taking courses and doing things and then real-world having the jobs in the positions that I had and learning from others. So I had a pretty deep background across categories in both the nuts and bolts technology of commerce and in the demand generation and branding side, which is more like my building blocks from a marketing standpoint.
Riley Clarke [00:06:00] I think it's a good Segway in a way that when you're a company. What options are there; do you have as a business from a technology standpoint for your e-commerce platform?
Ryan Alford [00:06:11] Well, the technologies have come a long way. There's a lot of what I call self-serve options and there are more custom options. We're a Shopify partner agency, which means we build and scale off of Shopify quite a bit. It's the first choice that I recommend for small to medium businesses and even a large scale business if they don't have a ton of complexity in their product lineup, not necessarily the number of skews, but the complexity of that, the variations of skews and things like that. Shopify has a lot of the building blocks figured out for people. It's easy for an organization to take on. We're doing it's giving several platforms onboarding right now for what's going to be probably the largest fabric online e-commerce store in the world. Eventually, it's starting small. But they have a really good base of customers from their brick and mortar and some of the unique sales they've done. But then they've got the ability to scale because they have the merchandise. They have a great supply chain for how they source and get this stuff. So we're working with them. But, we're real-world working with a lot of companies and shop for Shopify Plus and then other platforms you have. Magento is now owned by Adobe. It's a longstanding custom platform. You can actually build on it “for anyone wanting free”. I can verify you don't have to pay for the platform like you do with Shopify with a monthly right. They do have paid for that. They do have a Magento e-commerce now where it's a little self-serve as you're still going to need a developer. That's the thing with Magento super, it is highly customizable. You can have any variation. You can be big scale, huge commerce platform, endless possibilities, very complex. And you'll need a developer and a team to do it. And it makes sense for some complex businesses. And it's a very great, robust and trusted system. And now Adobe, of all the huge company behind it. And then, there's other ones, players, big commerce. Wick's in the more self serve. And, it's really important, though, for companies making the right choice. At the start, we have actually been helping with several companies transition from the smaller self-serve platforms like Wick's. That really never made sense for them to begin with. They were of a scale in magnitude where they should have started with a Shopify or a Magento right off the bat. So they just end up spending more money. And then there are others which are mainly for like the creator space. I'm sure I'm leaving out something. The only other thing I would throw out is, is WooCommerce for WordPress sites. That's the engine that drives it. It's open-source as well, like Magento. So you can't custom code that as you need to for the WordPress site. So if you've got an existing WordPress site, you're moving to commerce. That's where you get into a decision. Am I going to stick with my WordPress site and layer on the Web commerce engine, or am I going to go to a Shopify or a Magento that ends up being the decision at any point? We help with a lot of companies making that depending on the factors of their business.
Riley Clarke [00:09:48] That makes sense. So has there been something that you like to use as a dedicated marketing ecommerce playbook?
Ryan Alford [00:09:58] Well, there are the nuts and bolts for any business and then there's specific to one. Industry, because we've worked with cosmetic companies, we worked with supplement companies, with fabric companies, we were furniture companies, we worked with a lot of verticals. And so there are Playbooks for each one. But specifically, like the nuts and bolts of any platform, it is all about the acquisition of customers as inexpensively as possible. The problem with customer acquisition is if you don't have loyalty or don't have a brick and mortar store, it's very expensive to acquire customers or just organically and new. And that's the struggle for most e-commerce brands when they get started. So your playbook really starts with how fast can I build a customer base? How fast can I get my list? And that's the email list for you to do email marketing, which is definitely part of the playbook. And how fast can I start leveraging my customer base and building lifetime value with them versus acquiring new customers? And really any playbook for e-commerce is the speed with which you can do those things. And there's definitely a balance between what I'd call product marketing and brand marketing and finding that balance depending on what you do. And the key is now, and I'm one of these guys right now, one of the buzzwords is a purpose-driven marketing and purpose-driven business. I'm a little bit more pragmatic in my thought process about that. I do think that people care that companies have a purpose. But there are a lot of products where it's about convenience, it's about need.
Riley Clarke [00:12:08] Exactly.
Ryan Alford [00:12:09] I know I need to tackle them. I'm on Amazon shopping for socks. And, there are some T-shirts over in the right corner because they know what I'm looking for. And, I don't have any clue where they were. But I do think for certain companies that I think it's as much internal as it is external. Your internal people need to be around a purpose. And they need to convey that. And yes, you want when they come to look you up or they read about you or they see your content, you want there to be a purpose. And that's important. But I do think if you'll remove friction, you provide a need and you fulfill that with the customer when, where and how they need it. A lot of times some of the other stuff matters less, OK, and it's just this category to category, right.
Riley Clarke [00:13:03] So it should depend on where companies coming from, what they're necessarily selling, how they transition.
Ryan Alford [00:13:10] There are a million techniques within that. Like how do you build an audience? So Facebook ads are huge no matter how much Facebook gets banged on these days between them and Google, you can reach your customer one way or another. Whether that's pay-per-click ads for someone that's searching for vitamin D and you sell vitamin D and you need to be in that Google shopping list or have that first ad that's pay-per-click or you do SEO and have that first organic list because you've done keyword matching on your website and you have blog content that matches it. It's complicated and it's amazing to me the number and it's why I somewhat rest easy at night knowing that companies need agencies and partners because of the complexities that there are in doing these things and knowing which ones to do first. And there is no silver bullet, though. That's the reveal side. People want what I can do. This one thing is just Facebook product ads in our stores going to take off. But there are a million pre-workout supplements on the market and you are just going to stand out running a product ad with your label that looks cool. There's a lot of vanity stuff in cosmetics and supplements and other things, and it does have to be deeper than that. You have to have great reviews on social media; what I call equity because you've got people talking about you were those reviews along with other things. There's just a lot that goes into it.
Riley Clarke [00:14:44] I can say this because I'm probably that customer as well. But I feel like we're high-maintenance shoppers anymore. We want to see a brand that has credibility. Like, I'm going to go to their Instagram and see what their feed looks like or I'm going to see what people are actually saying. Is it actually getting spread and what's the social proof those are going to be the things that like I feel like any more, that's a consumer trend? But I think it's interesting, you probably shouldn't do everything for your product.
Ryan Alford [00:15:26] But the word you said is key, and I think you meant it both ways with the “social proof” part of high expectations, high-demand customers. Like people have gotten used to Amazon and how easy it is and they've made it both extremely easy and hard for other businesses. Giving you the playbook. But it's really hard because they've made it completely self-served. It's super easy. It's for clicks. I'm in the cart. I'm checking out. You have my payment information saved. The friction. I can buy something on Amazon. I could do it while I'm talking right now. Probably not even looking at the screen. And so you have to get that right. And that's some of the things that get lost. It's like we've got a great product and we'll get it out there. We'll run some Facebook ads and we'll run some Google ads. And, we'll do this cool video for our Facebook page. And that's all great and that's great. But then you get to the site, it takes seven seconds to load. It takes 3 minutes to get your credit card loaded in because there's nothing saved and you don't have the saved engine that brings up their credit cards or linkage to other systems. And this is why we push people to Shopify because they have a lot of this already worked out. And people it gets lost in the sauce sometimes. If people fall in love with their own products They need to fall in love with the customer.
Riley Clarke [00:16:48] That should be a little tagline thing. So, I mean, when you're like a small to medium-sized business and you're struggling with that initial e-commerce like strategy and feeling overwhelmed. And I think this is timely in the terms I hate to say it, but in terms of the pandemic right now, a lot of companies, small and medium-sized are either struggling or need a revamp of some kind. Like where do you start?
Ryan Alford [00:17:19] I think I like to start where I know there are problems first because what happens to me it's the fear of missing out like everyone sees what anyone else is doing and oh I gotta have that. There are so many bells and whistles like you're going to do these things. Then suddenly, a small business that can only afford four key tactics is trying to do well and focus and at least take on a partner or have someone that's working with you identify what the issues are if that's if you're problem-solving an existing e-commerce site. OK, so we have a functional problem with the site. Like, “we need to look at the technology”. “We need to reverse engineer what the issue is, come up with a platform solution”. If it's a content solution, if it's a story solution, then you need to work on your brand. Then you need to work on what we are trying to do and how we want people to think, feel and act. And that starts with branding. That's not technology. That's branding. So there are so many layers to it as a company that e-commerce is the technology in this where the sale happens all-encompassing. And that's the interesting thing about e-commerce is it's all in one. I think people and businesses before when you had a when you have brick and mortar stores and you have marketing, you have branding, there was an easier delineation in your mind for these channels and these things. OK, we're building a brand. We're going to we're telling a story. We're working on a new content piece. We're working on a new employee program. We're doing these things and they feel very independent and they understand that it's building toward something. E-commerce gets this lump-sum thing and it somehow now encompasses the entire business. There are some businesses. All they do is sell online. And so I think you have to separate the parts, separate the problems or the challenges of the opportunities and focus on what those are. Do I have a brand problem? I have a technology problem. I have a content problem or a people problem.
Riley Clarke [00:19:25] Well, OK, then. This makes me want to ask you then, what are your thoughts on the balance of performance marketing versus branding because I think that sets really nicely into what you just said.
Ryan Alford [00:19:37] That is the million-dollar question right now in e-commerce. Those are my buzzwords, purpose-driven marketing, but the demand and product-driven versus brand. The problem is a brand can drive performance. Performance marketing doesn't drive brands. For example, showing me a picture of your yoga pants. It's not really building the brand it's trying to drive a sale that is performance-driven. So it doesn't really work in reverse, but that makes sense. But we get Michelle Obama wearing those yoga pants, and chose her randomly. And she talks about how, as a busy mom and she's taking care of her businesses and all that. But she's running around in a post-covid world and she wears bungees, yoga pants. And she tells that story. That's brand. And that can drive sales. The balance there is unless you have a product that is solving a problem. No one else was offering it. Unless you have that type of offering, you need to be working on your brand. Why should people buy from you today, tomorrow and the next, because that's what you need? You need that lifetime value. And that's the biggest learning curve in that is the lifetime value of the customer,
Riley Clarke [00:21:31] The loyalty of the brand.
Ryan Alford [00:21:32] Yes because if they aren't loyal, you are constantly going back in that acquisition loop. That's very expensive. That's very expensive to acquire cold customers, no different than any other cold calling. Anything else? It's hard and it's expensive. And so the answer to that balance is you need to do both. And what happens today, though, especially for any of these, venture-backed brands? It's like 80 percent performance, 20 percent brand. And then it works for a while because the Facebook ads work at first and then people get tired of seeing them and then they stop working, like, “why isn't this working?” “But what's our brand?” And we don't really have one answer. There's a problem. And so the companies that are finding that balance and again, category-specific, it can be 80-20 brand versus performance in and it could be 50-50, could be 60-40. There's not a perfect formula but brand and why people should buy from you beyond the product itself is really key and it's getting mired in lost as more and more people are worried about ROI on day one. This is a long-term proposition. If you're moving online, your business, you're moving your business from offline to online and you want to be around for the next 30 years, then you need to play the long game and you need to have a transition. I'm running out of money. You need to have two businesses and two companies going because it's a long game.
Riley Clarke [00:23:06] I got you. What's been an interesting e-commerce strategy lately that you've seen? Is there one that's standing out above the rest? It's like “oh my gosh”. Oh, that was crazy. That was it.
Ryan Alford [00:23:21] I'm going to plug our own series here a little bit. But it's actually the truth and it's, it's Lions Not Sheep. So Sean Whalen’s company, they're building his goal by doing a million dollars a month. They're doing several hundred/thousand dollars a month now with pretty limited products. They sell ten products. I'm sure it's more than that. But they have a purpose. Sean believes in it. He's wearing on his sleeve, he's Instagram verified and an influencer already. And so they have all the built-in stuff right now. Whether or not you believe in his purpose, whether or not you like what he's saying, the way he's building the brand is the way that people can build a brand now. He's building a brand every day by being himself. And he's living the Lions Not Sheep brand. He is the personification of it. He's living it. He's breathing it. He's influencing others who have that same belief and then they're executing the nuts and bolts of e-commerce. Like everything we're talking about, there's the mousetrap of e-commerce. You have to shop. Plus it looks good. You've got all the bells and whistles that come with it. You've got your products and all that. But the secret sauce is the brand layer on top, the purpose and the built-in audience that he brings every day that built an audience. He's spending some money on ads now just to put some gas on the fire. But he's been building this brand for his own, his own personal brand for ten years. He's been focused on this and changing his life and doing the things that he's done. And now it's manifesting itself. It's it still can be reverse-engineered because you do need to have a brand and a reason.
Riley Clarke [00:25:28] I think that gets to your bigger point of branding in general, because that's Sean's brand, right? Your brand, not you, Ryan, but you, whoever that is saying that question their brand might be something completely different, whether that's them, they are so they do DIY things or whatever it is like their brand could be completely different. But to the point of just living it out fully as a brand for all the layouts of what creates a brand, every aspect of that brand needs to be at play.
Ryan Alford [00:25:58] And it goes into like in full. It's her marketing, all those things, and so if you're a company, like our CEOs, really boring and we don't have anyone, that's the face of our company. Well, you know what? I'm sure if your products are wonderful, you can get influencers, you can get people talking about you. Otherwise, you got a bigger problem. And so you need to leverage their stories. If it's not your own story, leverage their stories, tell their stories; tell their stories through the lens of your brand. And so there's a lot of ways at this, but it's leveraging the real-time nature of social media, the fact that every eyeball is in a smartphone for half the day. And how do you maximize that to then sell more on e-commerce?
Riley Clarke [00:26:43] What are some e-com task tactics that businesses should be taking into consideration? We're right in the middle. Well, we're about to start our holiday season of holiday, marketing, all that stuff. What are some things that are important, especially in the post-Covid world that needs to be taken into consideration right now?
Ryan Alford [00:27:10] Well, it's one, if you're an existing business already, then it's all about maximizing your list. If you already have customers, right, it's a little late to start to be trying to gain. He gets really expensive. The ads, the ads go up in price, even though they've been down a little bit because Facebook and some of the boycotts have gone on. But, it's really expensive to be acquiring customers in the middle of it. So to two suggestions. One, lean on your customers, be good to them, have your messages in order effectively for your sales. And if you're new or you don't have that established base; go hard, put your best offer out there. I'm not saying give away the farm. And I think it's really dangerous; the companies that are always on sale or 30 percent all the time. But in this time period, people are looking for a deal. And so put your best foot out there so that you can acquire the customer via your product, but also the deal that they're getting. And, I see companies and we've worked with companies that toil with this. If your margins are 150% percent, then you need to do 30. Like for Black Friday and all these things. Put your best deal out there, get as many customers as you can and get them acquired. So you start building your list. And so that then you can target and resell them in the holidays. And if you aren't doing retargeting, then call us because you got a site coming to your traffic. You need to be doing dynamic retargeting so that they see and people are like, oh, I hate ads. If I looked at a pair of shoes yesterday and I found them on my feet, I'm not bothered. I'm not annoyed. I'm not. Like before I guess 15 years ago when I was in digital marketing, maybe I was like, “this is creepy”. Now people will like it. But, it's relevant, like if you were shopping for it, you're probably interested in it. And so have your retargeting on maximizing your email marketing. And if you're acquiring new customers, put your best foot forward. Don't go cheap.
Riley Clarke [00:29:24] I hear you. I think this is a great perspective and I'm really glad that we have this now in our ecommerce series as well. But that is it for this episode. The round goes.
You can stay tuned with everything that we do on the Radcast on Instagram at the.rad.cast. Our website is theradcast.com. And also follow Ryan Alford, our humble host. And stay tuned for our next episode. That'll be coming out and see you next time.
Ryan Alford [00:30:15] See you.