In this series, we interview four Amazon experts – some are sellers themselves, others are former Amazon employees who got in the trenches and learned the laws of the land. All of them are willing to lend their expert advice to you, so that you can successfully grow your small online business into an empire. This week, we sit down with John Lawson, Chief Consultant of ColderICE Media.
John Lawson is a man with presence. Despite his immense knowledge of all things ecommerce, he’s entirely approachable, down to earth, and someone you would want to be friends with. It’s no surprise then that he’s been able to take his effervescent personality and fill auditoriums with people who come to hear him speak. John is the CEO of online clothing retailer 3rd Power Outlet, the Chief Consultant at ColderICE Media, author of “Kick Ass Social Commerce for ePrenuers” and a Coach and Trainer for his ICE eCommerce Bootcamps. He’s also a speaker, self-proclaimed “Social Commerce evangelist” and an absolute wealth of knowledge on all things eRetail and marketing strategy. He was also kind enough to let us pick his brain and get the scoop on how small ecommerce businesses can market their stores successfully. The catch? We were looking for tips that would fit a small business budget. As a seller himself that began his ecommerce journey in the midst of near bankruptcy, John knows all too well how to make something out of nothing. He’s done it himself, and he empowers others to do it as well. Here is what we learned from sitting down with John.
From bankruptcy to new beginnings.
John began selling on eBay in 2001. He was about to claim bankruptcy after a property he invested in was not going to flip as he’d hoped. To earn some quick money, he started selling everything he could find. He began by selling some used books on eBay, and was surprised by how fast the turnaround was. Inspired by this success, John dove into retail arbitrage, buying goods at local stores and selling them online. By now, John had a fulfilling career at Accenture, and was previously working for IBM. Though he enjoyed these jobs, he had tasted the excitement and adventure being an online entrepreneur could bring – and he wanted more. He left his position at Accenture in 2004 to pursue an ecommerce career full time. He read everything he could get his hands on about marketing, and taught himself how to build an ecommerce empire.
How should sellers market their Amazon shop, while abiding by all policies?
Something John stressed is that when you’re on Amazon’s platform, you play by Amazon’s rules. Don’t do anything illegal that directs traffic away from Amazon and to your own website. To keep customers shopping from your Amazon store specifically, you need to brand the buying experience. Create custom labels and packing slips, hang tags, and instructional inserts (which are a great way to let people know about your support if there is an issue). John has even followed up with customers on the phone to make sure service was spectacular. He also recommends taking advantage of Amazon’s internal ad network. John believes the sponsored product ads are awesome, and are an opportunity not to be missed.
What is something all small business sellers can add to their marketing strategy, without breaking their budget?
“Social media.” John suggests spending 4-5 hours a week working on targeted campaigns to find an audience of buyers. You’re not just advertising to anyone – you have to be more strategic than that. “Don’t do push marketing,” John said. “Do pull marketing.” What’s pull marketing? It’s when you market to people who are interested in your product and ready to buy, whereas push marketing is just sending out content to anyone. For pull marketing, you need to create content that an audience of buyers would be interested in. You should not just spam them with product ads. To illustrate this, John used an example of a hypothetical retailer who sold wedding accessories. Instead of creating a post that said, “These are my products, they’re awesome, you need them for your wedding,” John would instead put together a blog titled “These Are the Hottest Trends for June Weddings.” His suggested blog is far less promotional, and is content a bride-to-be would genuinely be interested in reading. By developing content your audience actually wants to read and see, you create trust and establish your brand as an expert in your industry. Then, when your audience is ready to buy, they will think of your company and likely purchase from you. Always produce great content, and keep from being too self-promotional.
Ok, so what social channels should all small business sellers be required to have?
Facebook. “It has the most robust paid advertising options, and is a good place for businesses to begin their advertising on,” John said. Pinterest is another great option for retailers who cater to a mostly female audience. Like Facebook, Pinterest is visually driven and has been proven to convert (PS: the average order value of a sale that came from Pinterest is $58.95). Likewise, Instagram has an ideal combination of pictures and text that sells very well. Just bear in mind that 90% of their audience is under 35, so your target market may not be active on Instagram.
What does John think is the most underutilized marketing tool available to ecommerce sellers?
YouTube. “YouTube ads are still very cheap,” John said, “and give you free ad play for up to 5 seconds.” So if viewers skip your video before the 5 seconds is up, you don’t get charged. This means you’ll only pay for the times your ad was in front of interested parties that want to watch your video past 5 seconds. Make sure your ad is targeted and captivating, right from the beginning.
Here’s something creative that small businesses can do to get the word out about their store.
Even though you are selling online, John firmly believes face-to-face networking is a great way to market your store. Meet Ups, networking events, business mixers and conferences are all opportunities not only to sell, but to learn from others, regardless of industry. John has said that for every convention he’s been to, even if it doesn’t directly relate to his niche, he’s been able to learn something new he can apply to his business.
This is the smartest marketing move John made for his own business.
Back in the early 2000’s, John’s business 3rd Power Outlet sold bandanas. He would get a lot of questions from interested buyers wondering if he could teach them how to fold their bandana to look like Tupac. Instead of answering the question over and over again, John created a YouTube video tutorial on how to fold a bandana like Tupac. Whenever he got the question again, he would send them a link to the video. John laughed when he shared this with me, because even though he filmed the video on a 1mg pixel camera and wasn’t wearing shoes, that video now has over 300,000 views. That video put 3rd Power Outlet on the map, and it’s still on the first page of YouTube search results. From this, John learned about the engagement that comes as a result of creating content his audience wants.
And this is what John wishes he could have done differently.
Looking back, John wishes he would have built his brand the entire time. He didn’t work on establishing his brand until late in the game. As a result, he was very dependent on marketplaces for revenue. When selling on marketplaces (even popular ones like Amazon and eBay), you can only do so much to control traffic to your store. Amazon changes daily, and it’s a constant game of keeping up with the latest algorithm so that your products appear in the top of search results. As John put it, “what you are doing on Amazon today won’t work tomorrow.” On your own website, you don’t have to worry about these constant changes – no one can touch your site. Building a brand that sustains website sales also protects you for a rainy day when a suspension comes. If you have invested all of your business into Amazon and get booted from the site, you’re up the creek without a paddle. Make sure you build your brand as you go, so that your website can provide a steady stream of revenue too.
Any final words?
“Read, read, read.” Study marketing, and not just how it works for your industry. See what other ecommerce companies are doing, and take notes. John has read a multitude of books (and even wrote his own), and says it has helped him implicitly. Studying the latest marketing tactics, even those outside of your niche, will help you better market your business, period.
We are so grateful to have had the opportunity to sit down with John and learn marketing strategies every small business should try. Picking his brain and getting sage advice fired us up to share these awesome tips with our small business readers. Keep up with John on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram, and sign up for our ecommerce tips newsletter to get the scoop on how to grow your business.