In the midst of the dumpster fire that is 2020, there’s an underlying narrative that often goes unnoticed beneath many major stories. Whether it’s the banning of TikTok that has influencers in a frenzy to direct their followers elsewhere, or the cancelling of creators (both justified and unjustified), more and more residents of the internet economy are realizing the dangers of building their livelihood on platforms that they don’t control – people need to own their own data. It’s not enough to simply have a large following on Twitter or Facebook if the platform can simply remove you – or worse, in the potential instance of TikTok, if the platform can be banned from a country entirely. Although this seems more relevant to influencers than brands, it’s a worthwhile thought experiment to consider what you – as an ecommerce operator – would do if your access to a major social media platform was revoked. In most cases, we would wager that your sales would enter an absolute freefall.
The best way to think about owning your data – specifically in the context of ecommerce this means owning your following – is to differentiate between open platforms and closed platforms. Open platforms are fundamentally built for breadth, so you can use platforms like Twitter, Facebook, or TikTok to grow massive followings from net new people. Closed platforms are fundamentally built for depth, so you can use mediums like Email, SMS, and others to grow a more meaningful relationship with people who already follow you. It’s a delicate balance between the two: if you over-index on open platforms you’ll have a lot of followers with minimal engagement, but if you over-index on closed platforms you’ll have deep relationships with far too few people. Most ecommerce operators are already effective in using open platforms as an acquisition tool, but there’s often an untapped opportunity to used closed platforms to deepen relationships with followers who are craving more.
Email is the original “owned media” of the digital age. As long as they’re receiving value in-turn, buyers feel almost no hesitation when it comes to giving you their email addresses. This creates a compelling opportunity for your brand to continue to offer value long after the initial sale or brand touchpoint as occurred – and, since email is such a mature platform, oftentimes this can be entirely automated through tools like Klaviyo. Think about it this way: if you could no longer run Facebook or Google ads, where else could you turn to get reliable sales other than your email list? When you view the future through this lens, you begin to see the importance of nurturing your email list today. By staying top of mind and just generally seen as a value-add vendor, you increase your likelihood of future purchases – whether through email campaigns or otherwise. It’s a channel that no one can ever take from you.
SMS is not the new email. But it sure does serve a similar purpose. To learn more about SMS we highly recommend our broader piece on designing an SMS strategy; as you begin to look at your business through the lens of owned media it becomes even *more* important to begin your SMS collection strategy today. Even if by some stroke of bad luck you lost your email list, your SMS serves as another channel where you directly own your customer relationships.
The word “forum” often brings to mind archaic websites with rows and rows of threads on loosely related topics, but in reality, a forum can be any medium where your followers can engage with you, your brand, and one another. Most recently, forums typically come in the form of Slack groups, Discord channels, Sub-reddits, or Facebook groups.
As an operator running paid acquisition, retention, product design, and everything else that comes along with running a growing ecommerce brand, you may be wondering why it’s worth starting a forum for your brand when you can’t directly attribute conversions to it. Simply put network effects. As it becomes easier and easier to start a direct-to-consumer business, incumbents need to use their scale to create barriers of entry against newcomers. And network effects – when the value to each individual user increases as the number of total users in the network increases – are an effective way to do so. Legacy brands like Harley Davidson have historically done this through organized meetups and road trips for their customers, and newcomers like Seek Discomfort are doing so through localized forums for people looking to meet someone to try new things with. Whatever your niche is, find the common thread that makes your followers tick, and help them connect with one another to collectively chase that high.
By acting as the intermediary between like-minded buyers, forums are owned media that allow you to create value outside of your core product offering. And the best part is that, if you build the community right, the value increases without your input – as more and more members join the community, the inherent value of the forum goes up over time.
The final type of owned media that you directly control is your content. Ecommerce brands that become media companies within their niche are uniquely positioned as generation-spanning companies because they aren’t beholden to the same acquisition hurdles that other brands face – rising ad costs, constantly changing algorithms, copycats. By creating consistently high-quality content that specifically speaks to problems that your niche faces, you keep them coming back for value above and beyond your core product. Whether you’re publishing this content on a blog, a Substack, or an email list, it’s always content that you own and can repurpose as you see fit.
In an industry as ever-changing as direct-to-consumer ecommerce, it’s a bold assertion to make – is it still possible for a brand to survive for generations? As we see legacy retailers crumble all around us – Jcrew, Brooks Brothers, Sears – is it naive to even imagine that a direct-to-consumer brand can survive that long? Whether you believe you can do it or not, only time will tell. But we know this much to be true: in order to build a generation-spanning company, the first step is to own your media. If your brand is meant to outlast the platforms that it began on, you need to be ready to survive in a world where those platforms no longer exist.