A Facebook Ad Strategy Used Grow The Biggest DTC Ecommerce Brands, Explained Step-by-Step (with Nik Sharma)


Nik Sharma

In the last episode of the Minds of Ecommerce Podcast Ahmed Zedan, co-founder of Haute Hijab, shared how they manage to scale fast using data to make better web design decisions, how they use customer insights to drive their AB testing program, and how they’ve built a culture with experimentation within the company.

In episode #5, Nik Sharma, former director of direct to consumer ecommerce at Hint Water and VaynerMedia will share step by step an online ad strategy that helped Hint Water become $100 million business, according to Forbes.

The following is an edited version of the interview’s transcript.

How Nik’s background helped him come up with a publisher-driven ad strategy.

“So my background before going into ecommerce in the world of DTC was working with publishers who basically made most of their money off of arbitraging programmatic and native advertising. And so, the whole game there is copy, creative and click-through rate. And once you get somebody to the site, their content is usually sticky enough to the point where they’re good in terms of having a user come to the site, go through a few pages on a slideshow, and then making the revenue.”

“And so, having that background, I knew how cheap of clicks I could get that were still quality, US desktop consumers.”

Getting cheaper clicks by providing more context prior to the offer

“One thing I realized when I started working on the brand side is just that the brands are paying a lot of money to drive clicks over, and it’s just not necessary because you can definitely get clicks much cheaper.”

“The biggest difference is that most brands go for trying to sell a product right away or selling a product with a discount and essentially just putting their offering in front of someone without really giving them full context or reason or a why to buy their products in the first place.”

“And that still happens today and that’s where you see, you know, CMOs and brands talk about how Facebook doesn’t work anymore. It’s usually because their creative sucks, and the experience that they’re driving the outbound click to also sucks. There’s no reason why, you know, if you’re not spending $10 million a month on Facebook that you should be complaining about Facebook.”

Implementing a storytelling strategy to drive down acquisition costs

“One of the things that I did initially was to implement this storytelling strategy. How do we take a consumer who’s seeing an ad to buy the product and get them invested in why they should buy the product or why the company started and how that’s changed other people’s lives or the founder’s life? How do we build that connection and authenticity?”

“What we ended up finding was that good storytelling not only increased conversion rate and click through rate, but it drove down acquisition costs. And the best part about it was that the customer actually knew the story of the product at this point. When they got the product and they were drinking it (referring to HINT Water), they could relate to it in a different way. But it also as a byproduct caused a higher lifetime value for the customer itself.”

“Instead of seeing customers come in and trying the product and maybe sticking around for a couple of months, these people were now bought into a relationship with the product or they had their own story of why they’re consuming the product. Things like that drove a higher lifetime value, which allowed us to scale much quicker and put more dollars into the right strategies.

Fusing performance marketing and brand marketing to create one strategy: performance branding.

“The whole idea is how do you take performance marketing and brand marketing and fuse them together in a very native way for the consumer to understand and also reciprocate back out.”

“I call it performance branding, which is basically building brand equity on the back of your working media dollars while also driving revenue and sales and building that customer base. And you start to see brands doing it now but there’s still a lot that still just don’t completely understand it.”

Performance Branding in action: what it looks like

“Ideally, you’re going through your feed and you see an article that pops up. It’s an article that catches your attention. There’s good copy, there’s good creative.”

“On the backend, we’re probably testing about 200 different variations of that one piece of creative or that ad unit. And you click it, you get to a site, it’s a very, very clean UX. That’s pretty much where most of the magic sauce comes in is how clean the UX is. And also just the way the story is written. So, it’s a very different way that a story is written for direct response purposes than it’s written for editorial purposes.”

“It’s the way the story is written, the user experience of the site itself. And then from there, it goes straight to a landing page because you’ve given the context and you’ve educated the consumer on why they need to be consuming this product or how this product can apply to their life.”

“And they go straight from the article to a landing page and they convert…”

Who drives traffic to the website? Publisher? Brand? Influencer?

“We’ve had success trying multiple different ways to do it. You can use an influencer, whether that’s a homegrown, like an executive at the company, or you can use the brand.”

“The other thing that I’ve done in the past is, you know, I just have a lot of relationships with people who are influencers and because Facebook is such an under-utilized channel for influencers, they all have a page and they’re all verified, but they just don’t necessarily push content out through Facebook.”

“And so, the only way for them to really drum up engagement and reach and impressions and more likes is by letting someone like me use their page to run ads.”

“Even when you’re scrolling through on your Facebook feed or your Instagram feed, you might see a post come through with an article, but it’s going to be shared by a person. So it’s not really going to look like an ad, but it’s still an ad and it indicates that it’s a sponsored post, but it’s just a more native way to show up in the feed. Like you would rather click on a piece of content shared by another person than you would shared by a brand.”

When using influencers to promote your content…

“The great thing too on the influencer side is they’re also becoming introduced to a completely new audience a lot of times. So, we don’t necessarily need that influencer to fit the audience we’re going after.”

“From a creative standpoint, if we’re having an influencer create content for us, as long as they can properly speak to the camera and get the message across, communicate with the person sitting on the other side of the screen, that’s usually good enough.”

“And then from leveraging the page’s perspective, you know, as long as they have a good page and they’re not pushing out content that’s against the brand values, you’re usually in a good position to run that for ads.”

What should the ads look like? What format to use?

“For articles, it’s just standard link image ad. But there’s a lot of testing that goes into it. I mean, we in the past have tested campaigns with $5000 or $10,000 and 200 to 400 variations of that one ad between copy, images, headlines, ad text, call to action buttons, the pages it’s getting shared from, you know, all those things play a big role.”

“There are also different winning ads between different demographics. So you might have older females who skewed to convert on one version of creative versus males who are younger might skew to convert on a different version of that creative.”

Raphael’s Pro Tip: Always segment your data and look at it at a granular level. Averages lie and could make you take the wrong decisions.

What should the website/landing page from the ads look like?

“A landing page that’s usually unrelated to the company who’s selling the products is better. Ideally, you want a sponsored piece of content that lives on a publisher site is what you’re trying to do. Companies like Vox, companies like dig.com, companies like Refinery29. They’ll host your content as a sponsored piece of content.”

“You basically want to be on a credible source or a site that is also known as a credible source for content or news or whatever it may be so that as a consumer, when you get there, you know, it’s legit. It’s not just a scammy ad. And I should also probably say you shouldn’t be running scammy ads in general.”

(Check out our teardown of some of our favorite mobile ecommerce landing pages from DTC brands to get some landing page ideas.)

How should those sponsored content articles be written? Any specific framework?

“Staying true to the editorial style guide or the editorial voice is key. Two, it’s just simply written. Like I always used to tell my team and I still tell my team that an eight year old should be able to read this piece of content, understand it and then tell it back to you.”

“If an eight year old can tell it back to you or if you, the other thing we used to do sometimes is just, you just get some whiskey, you take a couple of sips of whiskey and if you can understand the content and teach it back out, then it’s a good piece of content.”

How to get people from the content piece to the product’s landing page

“You can have a call to action at the end of the piece of content. Sometimes you can get mentions of the brand linked out to the landing page as well.”

“If you have a call to action at the end and mentions of the brand linked out, you can usually get about a 15% click through rate out to the landing page. From the people that come to the article, 85% will end up browsing the site or just leave. But then once you get to the landing page, you’ve pretty much got them in the bag.”

“Then there’s about 60 to 70% conversion rate from some of the numbers I’ve seen lately.”

Should the landing page sell the product directly, or be an email opt-in?

“It depends. I’ve always done it to buy the product. If you check out Buffy Comforters websites, you see that they will sometimes opt-in only for email, and then they might via email. It usually depends on the order value of the product. The higher the order value, the more likely they’re just trying to initiate contact or get you into their funnel. If order value below $150, you can usually convert them right there.”

Raphael’s Pro Tip: Use a landing page builder to build your landing page fast, and without the need of a developer. We recommend using either Unbounce or Instapage (read our landing page software review here).

The biggest mistakes brands make with this strategy

“The biggest mistakes is usually in the creative as a whole. So, image and the copy. And then usually on the article itself. There’s a lot that goes into the UX and there’s a lot that goes into the way that the content is written that most people just don’t get right.”

“For example, things like an ad copy can be too much or too little or if it’s not properly formatted to fit desktop and mobile or maybe a headline runs and there’s one word on the second line of the headline which you don’t want because now that’s messy, and you take out the opportunity for that news feed description text to be in there.”

“Maybe your ad copy has an emoji at the end but the emoji’s on the second line or it looks weird. It’s really just visually, how visually aesthetic is the creative and then the same type of mindset applies to the actual piece of content. Is it easy to read, is it intimidating when you get to the site, is it easy to flow through?”

Customer research is the key to success

“Go through every tweet mention of your brand. Go through every review, and maybe even call up customers or go talk to customers and see what they really like about the brand or what draws them to the brand. And then build some kind of authentic story around that.”

“It’s easy to fake a story but consumers can also smell that from a mile away. And authentic stories tend to just do the best. I mean, those are the only ones that work.”

“At Hint, we used to do our founder story a ton. Founder stories tend to do really well because it’s a very authentic way of telling how the company came about and why it’s a functional product and what problem it solves. In addition to that, you might have a product that helps people in ways that it didn’t help you but it helps them and there could be a whole cohort of consumers that it helps them the same way that it might help that consumer.”

“For Hint, we saw that there were patients who were going through chemotherapy who because of the medication they’re on, they get a metallic taste in their tongue. And Hint helps to mask that taste when they drink water. So when they drink water, it doesn’t taste like metal, it tastes like fruit. And so, you know, there’s so many different ways you can just take a good product and tell stories about it.”

“But if the product isn’t good and if there’s no real story behind the brand, then it’s hard to implement the strategy. Like this just won’t work for any of the drop shipping, Alibaba garbage ones.”

“Finally, test a ton of creatives because if your ads aren’t working, it’s probably because your creative sucks.”

Main takeaways from this interview

  • Do customer research to understand your customers so you are able to build an authentic story around your brand, and build creatives that customers can relate to. You don’t want to make it up, it won’t work, so do the grunt work and interview customers, find out what they love about your brand and product, and how they use it.
  • Work with a real, credible publisher to get the story published and create ads that sends traffic to it. The story should be interesting, real, and easy to understand. Have a call to action at the bottom of the article that leads people to your product’s landing page so people can buy.
  • Always be testing. If you don’t test enough, you may never be able to make this strategy work. Test different ads, articles and landing pages. Understand what works and what doesn’t with the Testing Trifecta Methodology.