From Consumer to Customer

To compete with the marketing budgets of traditional retailers’ ecommerce startups have found a way to cheaply acquire customers: provide interesting content on their website. Those who enjoy the blog are most likely their target demographic, and once on their website it will be easy to convert these readers into paying customers. However, these visitors are first and foremost consumers not customers, and the conversion from consumer to customer may be more complicated than imagined. Content driven commerce is an age-old concept; advertisements are paired with relevant media content in magazines, in newspapers, on television and alongside search results. Yet, for ecommerce businesses this new model challenges them to simultaneously create interesting content and a viable business. One company in particular, Huckberry, has been extremely successful in meeting this challenge.

Huckberry is a startup ecommerce site designed for the urban male professional who spends his weekend’s outdoors. Co-founders and college friends, Andy Forsch and Richard Greiner lived this life during their investment banking days and thus know their consumer well. Huckberry is equally a blog and a shop, you can seamlessly toggle between the sections via tabs at the top of the page. Counterintuitive to traditional merchandising, Huckberry intentionally drives traffic from the shop to the blog; products are featured next to blog posts, and blog teasers are placed in the shop. Last month I sat down with founder Andy Forsch and learned their blog strategy is as crucial as their merchandising strategy; they are constantly aiming to improve the customer’s experience by not only providing more interesting products, but also more relevant content. With email communication, their rule is three content pings for every commerce pin, and to date the strategy has worked as they have incredibly high open rates on their emails.

Huckberry’s consistent aesthetic and voice results in seamless integration between their blog and shop, they maintain this consistency by keeping all of their writing and photography in house. Even their product descriptions read like a story, In 2008, Swedes Alexander Palmgren and Henrik Lindahl found themselves in an American hotel room with lost luggage and— even more upsetting— no clean underwear. No, this isn’t The Hangover 3. But it was the beginning of an idea: Bread &Boxers.” Not quite the typical product description for undershirts and boxers, but each of these descriptions builds and maintains their brand.

The question remains, how will they convert these content driven sign-ups into paying customers? Further, does Huckberry need to turn every one of their consumers into a customer? To date their sales have supported the bootstrapped company (they have taken no venture fudning) and everything from article writing to order fulfillment is done in their SOMA garage style office. Without the pressure of growth targets they are waiting for the right opportunities to scale their business or pivot their model.

With a blog as valuable as Huckberry’s I wonder where their future lies. Are they going to continue to sell a curated collection of luxury plaid shirts and masculine candles? Are they going to fundamentally change media content’s monetization and distribution? Their articles are as interesting as GQs, but their turnaround time is seven days, not seven months, so it is no wonder why traditional media outlets, such as Outsiders magazine, have begun to seek partnerships with them. Huckberry delivers timely and interesting articles to their consumers’ inboxes with interesting products for sale folded into the mix. As a consumer and a customer that sounds better than getting an email from Details filled with display ads and veiled behind a subscription fee.


4 Comments

  1. Tom Humphrey

    This is a great post and an interesting company. A wasted hour of cruising Huckberry’s blog confirms that I fit firmly in the sweet spot of its target demographic.

    The idea of using content as the bait and ecommerce the hook is certainly in its infancy in the online space. Although this evolution is unsurprising – as you say, the concept of mixing pull content with push marketing is nothing new and is core to the revenue model of most print media. And to be sure, Huckberry is not the only online player trying to crack the content/ecommerce nut. I worked closely two years ago with Kidspot, an Australian business seeking to use a parenting blog to attract eyeballs and drive ecommerce and advertising sales.

    As you mention, this content/ecommerce model does provide start-ups with a renewed form of differentiation vis-à-vis the ecommerce powerhouses that firmly excel on traditional sources of customer value – cost, reliability and speed. Although the sustainability of this model as a method to cheaply acquire and effectively monetize customers is yet to be seen. If proven, it will be interesting to see how, if at all, the online gorillas (Amazon, eBay, etc) react. Groupon and the other daily deal sites have certainly sought some form of middle ground with the journalist commentary that accompanies its deal offerings, although the editorial investment in this is not insignificant and has an uncertain value-add.

  2. This is a very nice post and the company you mentioned is very interesting one. Taking a reverse order versus normal content driven business, it drives traffic from shop to blog. My understanding about the benefit of this business model is that it offers a better introduction of the products the shop sells in a fun or insightful way. Traditional content driven business focused too much on contents. People may be super fans of the blogs but just don't have any inspiration to buy products. There is a broken gap between contents and sales. This model is more straight forward to push the deals done. Customers might be attracted by the products first and then get further inspired by the blogs, which effectively raise the probability to buy.

    But there are still two challenges that Huckeberry needs to consider. One is scaling the business. Content is not easy to be created. It needs the bloggers have deep insights and personal experience. The two owners have certain insights and experience in outing, which is good, but it also limited the products scope they can sell and finally become a barrier for further scaling up the business. The other is by how much that the sales in the shop are driven by the contents. I would argue people who buy the products might because they are attracted by the products first, meaning the blogs actually are just facilitators. If this assumption is true, I might be worried that the key advantage here is not the blogs, but the products themselves!

  3. Veronica Tong

    This blog posts reminds me of a talk I attended by Burberry’s CEO, Angela Ahrednts, a few weeks ago. Ahrednts is greatly credited for turning Burberry around by making the brand more digital than any other luxury brand. When the moderator asked Ahrednts if she thought Burberry was in the business of story-telling, she took it a step further and said she thinks of Burberry as a digital content company, which sounds quite odd, considering Burberry is mostly an offline retail business.

    However, Ahrednts statement makes a lot more sense after a look at Burberry’s website, which has a section showing high quality videos of their fashion shows, an area called “Art of the Trench” that encourages customers to upload their own content — photos of themselves in their trench coats — to the website, and a feature called “Burberry Bespoke”, where consumers can design and then purchase their own trench coats. For a limited time period, consumers could even download Burberry’s branded iPhone weather app to match their Burberry branded rain gear products.

    Interestingly, when I asked Ahrednts whether Burberry’s online sales is comparable to offline sales, she told me the majority of sales and profits are still driven offline. Is content-creation really an effective marketing strategy for retail businesses, or should they just stick to doing what they know best — selling clothes? Is content-creation as a marketing strategy more suitable for retail businesses that are purely online, like Huckberry, and less impactful for businesses that operate mostly offline, like Burberry? And finally, to address Gary’s concern of Huckberry running out of content, maybe Huckberry can take a page out of Burberry’s playbook and create multimedia content to enrich the shopping experience in addition to blog posts.

  4. Henry Lin

    A question that's still outstanding in my mind is, do you develop a content rich site first and then monetize with the store, or do you do both at the same time. To me, there is an inherent conflict of interest that arises if you try to do the latter. Your content is not as genuine because at the end of the day, you're trying to make money. On the other hand, if you begin with a content rich site and then make the transition, are you selling out and lose the respect of your fan base? How will you measure success? What are the percentage of users you hope to make that transition. I haven't seen a lot of blogs turn into businesses and haven't seen make business create successful blogs. I think it's a tough sell to be both and has some inherent conflicts.