The 6 counterintuitive ways we grew BarkBox into a 100m E-commerce Business

Despite the the massive growth in online shopping, ecommerce is still incredibly basic and utilitarian as a user experience. You show up, buy, we ship.

At BarkBox, we focus on a customer-centric approach that incorporates a bit more emotion and experience design. We do this by constantly finding new ways to meet potential customers, delivering a better experience when they visit our sites, and building a strong and personal relationship once we begin to service them (and their dogs). We focus on trust and by extension, authenticity, in every pixel of our presence, and every dog butt pic we share on Instagram.

Constant testing, trials, and experiments have led us to the six pillars outlined here, and following them has been key to achieving real scale.

1. Give a shit

Thinking that customers are idiots and you’re the smart one is toxic, and that attitude seems to be prevalent in corporations and startups alike. Customer support shouldn’t be viewed as reactionary, like something you only do when you have to. We did a few things differently early on at Barkbox, some by accident, some by design:

A) By necessity, the founders handled support from day one. We talked to customers every single day by phone, email, Twitter. We put our phone number on the homepage. As we began to grow, we put a very senior person, who some might say is overqualified, on running support. We then added other important responsibilities to the support team, like our pro-social work, some aspects of analytics and reporting, and marketing. Elevating support as a focal point of the company.

B) We reframed support as “Customer Love,” and constantly rely on the team to provide insight into customer’s motivations, interests, and complaints. The feedback loop between support, management, and product development is super tight. That allows us to turn customer complaints into insights, and pass those into tangible features.

C) Even when a customer did something wrong, we go to great lengths to make them happy. The most vocal critics become the loudest supporters once you listen to them and understand why they feel you were unfair or frustrating. Engaging in real dialogue like this helps you gain permission to ask customers all kinds of questions, and introduce them to new products and features. Some of our best features and ideas comes from open customer conversations. As a result we now ship special boxes to ‘heavy chewers’.

We evaluate many aspects of our progress based on changes in call volume relative to certain issues, number of tickets, customer win-backs, and other key support metrics.

2. Find million dollar stickers — by obsessing about your user flow

Sometimes huge pools of revenue are hiding in plain sight. The conversion funnel (from homepage visit to check-out) is the artery of an ecommerce business, and small tweaks there can pay outsized dividends. Below is an example of what we call a “million dollar sticker.” This little “best value” sticker has been tested dozens and dozens of times and after introducing it, the composition of our customer’s subscription values increased by 40%. This little sticker earned millions in revenue.

Think deeply about what users are motivated by and interested in as they move through your landing, registration, and checkout pages. Especially now that ecommerce shopping takes place more frequently on mobile screens, you have less real estate and need to make small tweaks a core exercise to profitability.

3. Email is one of the most underappreciated tools

If email is not a core driver of growth in your revenue, then you’re definitely doing something wrong. Ecommerce companies aren’t thinking as innovatively and creatively about email marketing as they should be. Maybe because we all feel like email is spammy now, and our own inboxes are full. But in reality, the inbox is more than ever the homebase for communication and the jumping off point for sales conversions. Mobile people check their inbox 100 — 300 times per day. Carving out a brand presence there is a big opportunity to increase the length and monetary value of customer relationships.

Think of email like a pulse check over time as your customer travels from day 1 signup to day 90 being a loyal customer and evangelist. Emails are like signposts on the side of a road. The customer is in control, but you can influence their route quite a lot by posting the right signs at the right times.

Email needs to be personalized, well-timed, and tightly correlated with what a customer wants to hear from you at that moment in their relationship with you. Some key tips to driving repeat purchases, engagement, and loyalty with email:

A) Be aggressive in capturing emails. Not too aggressive…. but collecting emails should be a focused effort for your marketing team.

B) Be really personal. Get out of the “batch and blast” mentality. Be entertaining, and not just salesy. Even when promoting a special offer, make it fun, and not just urgent.

C) Plan emails as an if-this-then-that chain over a 30, 60 and 90 day period. Design the content to guide customers along the ideal onboarding and activation path.

4) Let users do the talking

For as much noise as people make about “tapping into social,” most integrations and share triggers seem to be poorly or haphazardly integrated. The customer is the best resource and inspiration here. They are naturally social, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just listen to them closely and understand not only what they share, but also why they are sharing. What’s their motivation? Why would they tell their friends about a purchase? Why would they tweet about your company’s existence?

People value content that is any combination of entertaining, helpful, or educational. Be one or all of those. Sharing is mostly motivated by our need to feel smart, cool, or unique. Help users feel that. Help them humble brag.

Your social strategy should be to amplify and encourage the natural sharing tendencies of your customers. The days of the borderline rude pop-up window “Congratulations, you bought some shoes! Post on Facebook // Share on Twitter” are mostly over. — And yes, you can you just trick everyone into sharing? But then again, it’s really not ethical. Read more about that at “The Product Developers Dilemma: Morality vs Virality”

5) Be the place to hang, even if customers aren’t buying

Apple’s flagship stores changed the future of offline retail in my view. Computer stores are no longer a place where you just buy gear; they are venues for taking classes, meeting geniuses for support, or snagging free wifi and hanging out.

Our experience is that the Apple approach is highly relevant for e-commerce platforms. At BarkBox, we aim to do for dog parents what Apple does for computer buyers. We give them a place to hang out — even if they aren’t buying anything yet. We created a popular content property called BarkPost, and are super active on Instagram. Our Facebook properties are fresh with dog-related content. Facebook in particular has been a great partner and a good platform for publishing our content in a way that people enjoy while allowing us to quietly promote our services too.

But we seldom talk about our products on our hangout properties. Our content outlets are for sharing our passion for dogs with like-minded people — not scooping a quick “like” or forcing sales offers down people’s throats.

6) Be a smart salesperson once you’ve established intent

In your content and social presences, you should not be be pimping your products and services heavy-handedly. But once you have purchase intent, turn on the direct sales. Try offering additional impulse offers at checkout, discounts to incentivize larger order sizes, free shipping incentives, and complementary product category recommendations. The more your customer feels like they are discovering a value-add as opposed to being sold an additional product, the better.

Be smart about marketing around abandoned carts or cart items that didn’t make it through purchase. Every dollar counts in ecommerce, and just like million dollar stickers, small improvements in your sales flow go a long way. So look at your flow as a journey — and find polite ways to upsell when you think you can. (read my post about ‘Flow vs Feature’) But don’t overwhelm customers with too many options early on. Most customers think they want options, but really they want the right options.

@werdelin |
co.founder Bark & Co — managing partner at Prehype