How Acumen Brands built a cultural brand around predictive e-commerce

SUMMARY:

Acumen Brands has had a fascinating journey from keyword arbitrage to a leading e-commerce brand and southern culture destination (Country Outfitter). Here’s what they’ve learned about mixing culture and commerce – and moving beyond email blasts to predictive e-commerce.

Acumen Brands began its e-commerce pursuits the good old-fashioned way: keyword search. The goal? Serve up relevant products for under-served audiences. They struck gold with Country Outfitter, and in the last four years have grown into a seven figure e-commerce play.

Country Outfitter home pageIn the process, Country Outfitter has moved from selling boots into a destination point for southern culture and entertainment (and yeah, they sell more boots than ever). To pull this off, Acumen needed a smart e-commerce strategy that allowed for a high degree of personalization.

To get a look under the hood, I recently spoke to Ben Roberts, VP of Marketing Operations at Acumen Brands and Country Outfitter. Roberts explained how they move from transactions to culture and content, to the tune of 8.5 million Facebook fans. He also shared how Sailthru helped them moved beyond brute force email “batch and blast.” As an early Sailthru Sightlines customer, Roberts gave me some early results on these new predictive capabilities, and what they are learning so far.

From keyword arbitrage to brand differentiation

Acumen Brands is in growth mode (their 2014 holiday season was their strongest yet), but in the “growing smart” category. Example: they designed their warehouse to run with a handful of employees, supported by over 50 Kiva robots. During seasonal periods, Acumen ramps up with contractors. Of their current 100+ employees, thirty are in marketing. I asked Roberts how marketing has changed:

Marketing as a scalable thing is now a technical pursuit. It’s no longer the Mad Men of yesteryears. It’s not, “I just thought of a great idea, and I’m going to make it happen.” There’s a lot of numerical analysis and understanding the context. My role is really focused around integrating the technology into the process of marketing, and making sure that we execute that well in all of our channels.

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Ben Roberts

If Acumen Brands started as keyword arbitrage, once Country Outfitter took off, they doubled down, expanding beyond boots to other related products. But how do you persuade customers to buy from your site instead of behemoths like Amazon.com? Roberts:

Country lifestyle lovers don’t just wear boots. They wear other clothing; they buy stuff for their home and so on, so it’s just a natural fit to expand out from there.  Once we hit upon Country Outfitter, and country as a vertical, we set about really intentionally building a brand around that. Part of building that brand was making sure that we had the absolute best lifestyle, aspirational imagery and content that we could have.

In the early Country Outfitter days, Roberts and his team featured product-as-content, showcasing their products on social channels via promotions and giveaways:

When product is content, it allows you to showcase that in lots of different channels and, at the same time, easily make that jump to buy. When people are liking a boot giveaway on Facebook, they’re also thinking, “I need that pair of boots if I don’t win.” We’ll follow up and either give them a discount, or free shipping, or some sort of trigger to purchase and it works very well for us. That’s how it all started.

The media play takes hold – Country Outfitter Life is launched

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Country Outfitter Life

But Roberts didn’t stop with promotions. His team developed broader content around the southern lifestyle, culminating in last week’s launch of Country Outfitter Life. At this point, country music and culture is a profitable media arm of the company:

There’s a lot of partnerships that media leverages to help retail and vice versa. They’ve got great relationships with country music and Nashville, and then we have great relationships on the retail side with country retailers. It’s a small community when you really start adding it up. Our plan really is a 3-pronged approach around retail, media and product. We have the media arm that is doing really well and it’s growing, and it has a great plan to grow. We think that that’s going to help the Country Outfitter lifestyle brand overall as we continue to build it.

Country Outfitter “fans” on Facebook and elsewhere respond better to content than promotions:

We built a really large audience from a retail standpoint on Facebook, and we were able to really port those over. We found really great ways to push content to those users, and they find it much more interesting than the boots we were trying to shove in their face for a year or two. It’s drawing them to life. It’s driving them to the website and keeping Country Outfitter top of mind.

Cultural affinity through content sharing leads down a “happy path,” where buying occurs organically:

It gives them some value in the interim. You’ve got great content that relates to their culture and their lifestyle. Then when they are ready to buy something, you’ve got what they need.

From “batch and blast” to personalized email

That doesn’t mean Country Outfitters is done with email – targeted email remains a critically important sales channel. Working with Sailthru, Roberts and team have been shifting from big blasts to personalized messages:

We had a ton of email addresses, but we didn’t have a very sophisticated email program to capitalize on those. Honestly, we weren’t giving people a very good experience honestly. We were batch and blasting even when people were screaming that we need to quit batch and blasting. It was difficult to get off of that approach, because it’s revenue generating.

You can measure the batch and blast unsubscribes easily, but not the weariness of users who like your brand but need a break (something LinkedIn is finally learning). Working with Sailthru meant changing it up:

We refocused our efforts on sending email at the right time. We started sending things like browser abandon. We made a much more sophisticated cart abandonment program, and really pushed people harder that were lower in the funnel in terms of intent, and left people alone to be engaged when they want to be engaged.

We still do blast marketing, but it’s more from a discovery standpoint today. It’s not, “We expect you to buy on this email.” It’s, “Hey look at our new brands,” or, “Look at our new product lines,” or, “Check out our new piece of content about what happened with Blake and Miranda last week.” I mentioned that one because it drove about 700,000 people to our site.

The results are in the numbers:

Today we’re generating 30 to 40 percent of our overall email revenue on triggered messaging, giving a much better experience to a customer. We can send less emails, and get a higher rate of return per engagement than we ever did. We’ve tried to make it more of an automated approach, and keep it as scientific as possible, so that we can optimize it and improve the experience.

Marketing and data science – can predictive yield a better result?

Acumen Brands has also been partnering with Sailthru on early releases of Sightlines, a new predictive solution that was recently publicly launched:

It made so much sense for us, because Sailthru really is our customer data repository from a behavior standpoint. It makes sense that you could do some analysis on a large scale there and come up with some predictions.

Roberts provided iterative feedback to Sailthru on Sightlines as they tested some use cases. They’ve used Sightlines to generate suppression lists, and to send “high likelihood to purchase” emails. One interesting test? Discount offers based on average order value (AOV):

Basically we said, “Here’s a group of customers that are subscribers that are likely to buy in the next 7 days, and here’s their predicted AOV.” Based on their predicted AOV, we split the offer minimum to two different groups. We did a minimum of $100… I think it was 10 percent off $100 and 25 percent off $150. Our email manager said that we saw an 85 percent lift in revenue on the group that had the AOV-specific offers.

Another use case? Combining internal data with Facebook demographics:

We’ll upload the 10 or 20 thousand users Sightlines identified as “most likely to buy”. Facebook will do its own characteristic analysis and say, “These people are most like those people.” Maybe they’re people that love country, or maybe they’re just people that are also planning to buy a pair of boots, but some characteristic is the same. That’s where we’ve seen some really interesting success, with click through rates three to four times the average.

Final thoughts – where does predictive marketing go from here?

Roberts sees predictive marketing as an asset for customer retention (better engagement, less opt-outs). But he’s even more excited about new markets:

I’m personally very interested in the offensive side, which is acquisition.  I think that we can use Sightlines to have a competitive advantage, based on the fact that we can target people in ways that others can’t.  That’s our next step in what we’re testing: we want to generate audiences that we don’t know about, that have similar characteristics to our best customers, and bring them into the fold.

Roberts is still in the early stages with incorporating predictive into their mix of culture, media, and technical analysis. So where is this headed?

Predictive is not just a one-off thing. It’s something you layer into your overall program, In five years, it’s something that should be extremely common practice with any mid-market or above, just always layering in what you know about your customer and tailoring it accordingly. It’s not just email, it’s the entire customer experience.

Image credits: Feature image and Elvis Presley image from CountryOutfitter.com home page. Ben Roberts head shot provided by Acumen Brands.

Disclosure: Sailthru is a diginomica premier partner.