Brian Thron is a magician, but not the kind who pulls a rabbit out of his hat with a flourish and an exclamation of "Abracadabra!" Instead, he's a digital marketing specialist who can take a lean marketing budget and rapidly generate a revenue stream out of thin air.
It's a skill set that has become increasingly crucial for companies to succeed because a significant portion of product sales now move through digital channels instead of being rung up at traditional brick-and-mortar retail shops. Brian Thron has been working with digital marketing for 11 years, and in that time, he's witnessed substantial changes in the way it's done. I interviewed Brian about what he's learned.
“I’ve always been curious about the digital space and how to leverage digital platforms for ecommerce,” says Brian. “I went to college when social media was just beginning, it was cool to see all that evolve to where it is today from early on when it was just building organic growth before the paid advertising was even available.”
Most recently, Brian helped expand the sales of Minneapolis-based Yardbird, joining the company in 2017 to help launch an ecommerce site that multiplied online revenue tenfold. Yardbird sells outdoor furniture sets directly to consumers. “They brought me on board to really build a foundation for them and to build a strategy around their marketing initiatives.”
The first step was finding a platform that would suit Yardbird's needs and plan for growth. "We didn't have much historical data on our customers and who they were. We had an idea locally who our customers were, but we really had no idea who the customer base was on a national level. So it was essential that we chose a platform that was agile so we could make changes as we learned who our customers were and how they shopped for outdoor furniture."
He examined some options before landing on Shopify as the best solution to take Yardbird to the next level.
"I really pushed for the Shopify platform because I knew they had a lot of great themes, and at a high level, they take care of the nitty-gritty details of payment processing and a lot of things you don't have to worry about. Really all you have to worry about is design, the user experience, the messaging, and the overall look and feel."
Brian was drawn to Shopify for several other reasons, including how easy it is to customize the store. I'm sure most of you can relate to the ease with which product pages can be added and subtracted, and how imagery and messaging can be swapped out at the click of a button. Plus, of course, the apps offered on Shopify allow ecommerce businesses to set up sophisticated systems with very little capital investment.
“Right away you get high-level analytics, they have a great app that you can give access to the rest of the executive team and see live orders coming through immediately. You can see what’s performing and what’s not performing.”
From Brian’s perspective, one of the best features of Shopify is its ability to capture customer sales from previously abandoned shopping carts.
"Those people are most likely to convert because they're shopping around," he says. "You can ping them and tell them a little more about your brand, or give them a coupon offer. You can send automated emails right to customers, which was great because we didn't have to spend months programming that in, and figuring out how to do that. We were able to be successful essentially overnight with that platform."
Brian finds it's relatively easy to convert customers who have indicated some interest in Yardbird by using social media re-marketing to display other available products to them. "I've had outstanding success with re-marketing. If a customer clicks on a specific product, we then introduce them to the whole collection. Letting them know there's not just one chair in that collection, letting them know there's dining or deep seating, or other pieces they might have missed or didn't see in their initial search is really effective."
Should your store work with a Shopify agency or expert?
Many entrepreneurs are averse to working with consultants or agencies, and perhaps rightly so. I’ve worked with agencies in the past who charged too much and added too little value. One firm I worked with charged a previous employer of mine $26,000 for a website that ended up being redeveloped from scratch by our internal team because the delivered product was so bad.
But that’s where the value of recommendations from the other people in the Shopify community come in.
Take it from Brian. He isn’t above working with Shopify experts to get things moving. In fact, Brian worked with none other than Kurt Elster, host of the Unofficial Shopify Podcast, to get things set up with Yardbird.
“By working with Kurt,” Brian told me, “we were able to sift through a lot of the garbage in the Shopify app store and pick only the best apps for our needs. Kurt really helped with that. He also helped us develop a website that was agile enough to make changes on the fly without the help of him or a developer agency. This was really important so we didn’t have to wait and waste time, and most importantly because we weren’t burning through cash on making changes to the site. Kurt is very knowledgeable of the latest and greatest, he shares great insights to his findings basically real time through all of his social channels. I love his podcast and YouTube series the most!”
While brian’s experience working with agencies has been great, he does think more agencies need to find a specific niche to work in.
“Too many agencies are trying to be everything to everyone,” Brian says, “and it doesn’t work very well because each industry has unique customers and not all tactics work across the board equally. Sadly, every agency will claim that they can do it all for you, ranging from branding, web development to advertising. They may be able to do those things, but they are typically only really good at one specific area. So, whatever you’re hiring an agency for, it’s important to notice that. With every company I’ve worked at in the past, I have always leveraged multiple agencies so that we could identify the things each was particularly good at.”
Don't make customers think
One way that Yardbird took a different approach compared to other outdoor furniture merchants is by offering complete sets rather than selling the pieces separately and offering only two color choices. To Brian, it's all about making it dead easy to choose a product and click that ‘buy' button.
"With traditional online outdoor furniture retailers," Brian told me, "you have 100 or sometimes even up to 1,000 different fabric colors to choose from, and then you have to pick each piece of furniture to build your outdoor furniture set. That process can get very confusing, and it's very time consuming for customers to build out their sets. It can take you up to an hour to completely build your set, and then you see this big price tag. There are also a lot of hidden costs when it comes to outdoor furniture if you shop around on some of the big-name competitive sites."
But at Yardbird, it's much easier. "You pick your color and your size, and then you just check out," says Brian. "We wanted to be different from those guys. Not only by offering a great product for half the price, but also having a totally unique user experience that's super easy and super transparent with what customers are getting."
The Yardbird approach reminds me of my recent chat with Michael Potters, Co-founder at Parachute Coffee, a coffee subscription brand. It goes to show that there's a real opportunity for Shopify entrepreneurs that aim to disrupt outdated business models by building a rock solid user experience. That said, making it easy for the customer often means more work on the shop's side.
Selling furniture in sets has made Yardbird’s inventory control more complicated on the back end. But Brian says it’s worth it.
“The way I always approach it,” Brian told me, “is that we should make it as easy as possible for the consumer. The end goal should always be making buying products easy and seamless and transparent for the customer, and not making it easy for us on the business side of things.”
Feel-good content and media coverage don’t convert.
Rather than chasing media platforms down for editorial coverage as a strategy to spur organic growth, Brian focuses his marketing energies on paid content. He views procuring free editorial as a task best handled by the public relations experts.
"For a startup, it's tough to build that organic credibility early on, especially going into a competitive landscape," Brian says. "It starts with what you're doing. Do you have a good story? Is there something that is going to attract a large media outlet to write about you? You have to have strong value propositions and a competitive advantage over others. What makes your product unique and better than others? For Yardbird, there's a lot of competition, so making yourself relevant organically is going to be really tough. It's like winning the lottery. Yeah, you can create content that may drive a lot of traffic, but the likelihood of that happening is pretty slim. So for a startup, I think it's essential to put paid behind your content first and then focus on public relations for some of that organic later. You have to get traction before you get attention from media."
Brian talks about the fickle nature of marketing and public relations in the context of an experience he had working at Yardbird. The furniture at Yardbird incorporated recycled ocean plastic, and the media took an interest in that angle of their story. “We got mentioned in a lot of really great media outlets, everything from BuzzFeed to MarthaStewart.com to Architectural Digest.”
But despite all the positive publicity, that wasn’t the clincher when it came to closing sales. People liked knowing the products they bought were environmentally responsible once they made the decision to buy them, but it wasn’t the factor that convinced them to buy. It was the price point that sealed the deal.
"Whenever a media outlet talked about Yardbird in price comparison," Brian said, "that it's half the price from the competition and the quality is amazing as well, that’s what really started pushing the needle in converting the customers rather than just writing about the sustainability efforts.”
Now that Brian has helped put Yardbird on the outdoor furniture map, he’s on the hunt for another ecommerce brand to blast into the stratosphere. If that’s you, check out Brian’s CV or get connected with him on LinkedIn. Also, special thanks to Kurt Elster for being the catalyst behind my connection to Brian.