Management & Finance

Building an Ecommerce Business, Part 15: Content Essentials

Content marketing for ecommerce businesses is much more than a sales pitch. Done well, it connects with prospective customers and tells the story of a brand.

I’m the founder of Beardbrand, an ecommerce business in Austin, Texas that focuses on beard care and men’s grooming. This is episode 15 in my series on building an ecommerce business from the ground up. The previous installments are:

For this episode, I spoke with Andrew Snavely, the founder of Primer, an online magazine, and Ryan Hunter Masters, the founder of Show Her Off, a dance instruction site. We addressed their strategies for deploying content that goes beyond direct selling. What follows is our entire audio interview and a transcript of it, edited for clarity and length.

Eric Bandholz: Please tell us about your businesses.

Andrew Snavely: I started Primer in 2008. It’s a lifestyle magazine for men in their twenties and early thirties. We say it’s the manual for the self-made man. We talk about things that culture doesn’t teach us, such as how to buy your first suit, how to negotiate a pay raise, and what to wear on a first date. We monetize through ads, affiliate marketing, and direct sponsorships.

Ryan Hunter Masters: I started Show Her Off a few years ago. It’s one of several brands that I own. Show Her Off helps men sweep women off their feet through dancing. About 10 years ago, I built an ecommerce store and sold it. I’ve learned a lot along the way.

Bandholz: Let’s talk about generating content for your brand and your story. Andrew, how do you get someone to read your blog?

Snavely: It’s tough. The hard part is getting new readers, similar to an ecommerce store getting new customers. We use several avenues. Organic search is big for us. We put a lot of time and energy into improving our search rankings.

We also do Instagram and Facebook. And word of mouth is important, too — people sharing with their friends. Our email newsletter has 30,000 subscribers.

Reddit can be powerful. It can send a lot of traffic. It’s an authentic group of people, but they’re sensitive to self-promotions. So we have never posted our own content to Reddit. But if our content resonates with Reddit readers, it can be amazing in terms of new readers and overall traffic.

Bandholz: Hunter, tell us about the content for Show Her Off.

Masters: Ecommerce owners, especially newer ones, often think, “We sell these widgets, and that’s what our content needs to be about. How to use the widgets.”

Certainly you can make content with that. But it’s more about finding the story of your brand and what those widgets do. What do we stand for? What do we stand against?

What we’re looking for at Show Her Off is energy. What gets you excited? Because if there’s no energy in it, people won’t consume it. In the age of Netflix, content is a dime a dozen. Making content is not enough. It has to be very good or people won’t pay attention.

Bandholz: A lot of ecommerce owners will go right to the sales pitch.

Snavely: A friend of mine sent me a sponsored post from House of Highlights, which is a sports highlights Instagram account. The post had a famous baseball player go back to his school with churros from McDonald’s.

But as he walks in, the kids explode because he’s a famous athlete who attended their school. The name McDonald’s was barely mentioned.

That’s where we are now. It’s all about the story. It’s all about lifestyle — how products fit into our lives. Not sales pitches.

Masters: Right. Show Her Off stands for romance and core emotions of love, hope, and courage. All of my content addresses those emotions. Yes, I explain the technical aspects of dance, but it’s much more than that.

Snavely: You don’t teach people on Instagram how to dance. You’re showing dancers. You’re showing people connecting. That’s the real product that you’re selling.

Masters: Exactly.

Bandholz: Not many guys want to buy a dance course.

Masters: They want to see their girl happy.

Snavely: With Primer, a big part of our content is teaching guys how to dress well affordably. Only a small percentage of our readers are fashion enthusiasts.

Bandholz: Do you feel like you’re on a hamster wheel, having to create content nonstop to keep your site healthy?

Snavely: A unique problem of running an online magazine is it requires new content continuously. An ecommerce site could produce content for, say, an email sequence for new customers and then use it for years.

Bandholz: One thing that transformed our business was setting up email flows. We started with a 10-email welcome sequence. We set that up just once. Email content doesn’t have to be a thousand words.

Masters: Email can connect more directly with your audience because you’ve got their attention. As long as you’ve trained them that your emails are valuable, they’re going to read them and connect with you.

Bandholz: Do you have a formula for your content, such as length?

Snavely: For us, content is our product. And we don’t want inferior products. A new reader that lands on a poor article will likely never come back.

We have a minimum length of 400 words or so. Anything shorter and search engines assume there’s not much value to it. And then we emphasize graphics and photography to complement the words. Most people, including myself, are scanners, not readers.

Bandholz: What about emotion or psychology tips?

Snavely: Primer existed before BuzzFeed and its listicles, such as “10 tips to make your wife love you more. Number five will shock you.” You have to click on that. And so for us, we wanted to be like, “How to make your marriage better as told by a licensed therapist.” No one clicks on that.

Hunter, you’re good about this. You frequently ask me, “Where’s the emotion?”

Why do people buy a bottle of water? Because they’re thirsty. But there’s 10 on the shelf. So what emotion are you going to try to connect with, to get the customer to pick yours? It happens subconsciously.

An easy way for ecommerce owners to do that, or at least get started, is to read their reviews over and over. Look at the words that people use when they talk about your product and how it makes them feel and why they’re happy.

For example, why does someone buy a drill? For a guy, it makes him feel accomplished because he completed a project. That’s the story in his head. Ecommerce owners should start from that emotion.

Bandholz: There’s so much that we can learn from the data. Use Google Analytics and look at which blog posts are doing the best. Ask why. Is it the title? Is it the format of the article? Or is it a competitive landscape?

There’s a lot that you can really glean and optimize and tweak and test over time. It’s hard work, and it isn’t directly going to drive a lot of sales. The conversion rate from our blog posts is just 0.08 percent. But it helps get people in the pipeline and then we can re-target them, educate them, and encourage them to subscribe to our email newsletter.

Snavely: That’s something that I convey to our advertisers. If you’re looking to get an immediate customer, use Facebook ads.

The value in content is being helpful to a potential customer and doing it in a way that when they need what you sell, you’re already in their mind. Perhaps they’re not ready to buy at that moment, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t be later. And now you’re in there. You’re ahead of your competitors.

See the next installment, “Part 16: Custom Manufacturing.”

Eric Bandholz

Eric Bandholz

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