Selling online is more than just slapping up a website with pictures and prices. Becky McKinnell, founder of iBec Creative, where they’re known for building successful ecommerce sites, encourages you to think like a customer when it comes to offering them a website with the best customer experience. But you also want to make sure you’re intertwining email and social media to help map out your customer’s journey and sell to them in a unique way.
Rich: Our next guest founded her award-winning digital agency, iBec Creative, the day after graduating from the University of Southern Maine in 2006. She has since been recognized as one of Business Weeks ‘Top 25 Entrepreneurs – 25 and Under’. Was named U.S. Small Business Administration Young Entrepreneur of the Year, and received the Stevie Women in Business Award. Among numerous industry recognitions for her company’s work.
In addition to iBec she is a founding partner of ikno intranet, a social intranet software designed for companies between 50 and 500 employees, that need an easy and intuitive way to communicate online. And most recently, she launched a necklace and handbag line inspired by salt air, Wildwood Oyster Company.
With such a busy schedule, we are very excited she made time for us. Please welcome Becky McKinnell. Becky, welcome.
Becky: Thank you, Rich. Thank you, Yury.
Yury: We are delighted to have you, it’s always a pleasure to get connected with the marketers. So Becky, let’s not waste any time, we know that you have a party to attend. So your agency, iBec Creative, is known for building e-commerce sites. How did you come to focus on that?
Becky: It’s a really good question. The company has evolved over the past 13 years. In the beginning when I first started it was focused on helping doctors and dentists with their websites. And then evolved to become more of a generalist and worked with all different types of small businesses. And then as my company got bigger I realized that it made sense for us to specialize and really become experts in a niche area.
So we started looking at opportunities for what type of work we loved and where we can add the most value to our client. And we found that with our ecommerce clients. It was really a perfect fit because it combines both the need for a really great design branding and user experience. It also combines the need for really talented developers. A lot of ecommerce sites have data feeds or complex programming needs. We really need good developers.
And then also our digital marketers are able to help our clients continue to grow month after month. Whether it’s social media, or digital advertising, content planning and storytelling. We’re really able to be like an outsource partner for e-commerce companies that either have a limited staff in-house or no staff in-house, and need a team to kind of bolt onto their company.
Yury: Are you Maine specific?
Becky: No. We work with companies all around the country. Most of our business is through referrals so we have the majority of our business in Maine, or headquartered in Maine with other stores or satellite offices throughout New England.
Rich: Becky, recently you partnered with Grove Collaborative to create the Maine Ecommerce Collective. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Becky: Yeah. It’s a new initiative that we’re really excited about. I met Matt Bray, who leads the Portland office of Grove Collaborative, which is a San Francisco-based company that delivers eco-friendly cleaning products. And I saw him speak at an event and just thought he was so cool and really appreciated his perspective on working with millennials and growing ecommerce in Maine.
So I reached out to him for coffee and we just hit it off and we were talking about how we really want to foster more ecommerce growth and ecommerce talent in Maine. And a few conversations later we decided that we would start that organization.
We had just had our kickoff event about a month ago at Grove Collaborative. We had about 70 attendees come and it was great. Norman from isavetractors.com shared his story about growing his tractor parts brand through YouTube, and it was just such an inspiring event.
And we’re really looking forward to hosting more events where people get to meet ecommerce entrepreneurs, as well as established ecommerce companies, and share that industry knowledge of what’s working and what’s not and really from those relationships.
I think that so many people, whether it’s in marketing or ecommerce or no matter what your job is, sometimes you can feel like you’re on an island and there’s nobody there to bounce ideas off of. And we really wanted to create that place where we’re facilitating that face to face engagement where you can share stories and experiences.
Yury: Well it sounds like with technology and mobile and stuff, it’s an ecommerce business. We’re all selling something online, whether it’s content, whether it’s services, whether it’s products. So it sounds like your initiative is something that would attract basically anyone who’s interested in succeeding.
Becky: Yeah, definitely. Whether it’s sales leads or ecommerce transactions, it’s all similar tactics for how you can get more traffic and increase your conversion rate to get more repeat business, all through similar strategies.
Yury: Well speaking about strategies, several years ago I think you were among the very first marketers in Maine who used the subscription model. Are you still offering that, is it still working? What are the benefits of offering the subscription model?
Becky: Yeah. Well thanks for recognizing that. I don’t know if we were the first, but, how did that all start. We call it “membership”. So we changed our services from an hourly and project fee company to a membership model where our clients pay us a flat monthly fee and it gives them an unlimited scope of work.
So instead of having to pan out in detail what’s going to take place during the month or the project, and then track change orders throughout the month, by having the membership model we’re just focusing on a priority list. And that way if things pop up and the scope changes, it’s no big deal, we just ship how that priority list is. And it really helps us have that true partnership with our clients and each month we’re earning their business and continuing to help them grow.
Rich: I’m sure it’s awesome for companies to know what they’re going to expect to pay every single month. Becky, do you feel that there are opportunities or challenges specific to Maine businesses when it comes to ecommerce? Maybe because of the tourism in the state, or perhaps the lack of connectivity.
Becky: Yeah. I think that it’s really important that the state of Maine has strong internet connections and they’re able to get lightning speed internet, whether you’re on an island or in northern Maine. I think at the same time though, we are so empowered by technology whether it’s with an app like Shopify or Squarespace for so many makers that may just have a single person studio in the middle of nowhere and have access to the world through ecommerce. I think that’s really inspiring that these niche businesses can be opened up to a world of customers that have an exact need for what they’re able to sell them.
Rich: Where 20 or 30 years ago, people would have had to actually visit the state of Maine and stumble upon some of these businesses for them to get that type of visibility.
Becky: Yeah, or ask for referrals or these strange connections that may take years to get to and today you can just find it through a Google search.
Rich: So just to summarize, I mean basically ecommerce is a real enabler for Maine businesses.
Becky: Yeah, absolutely.
Yury: So when you’re talking to a business about their ecommerce needs, what are the few things you ask them to consider?
Becky: I think that with ecommerce, if you are either the business that’s a startup and looking to launch with ecommerce or if you’re an existing retailer with either one store or a dozen stores that are looking to grow more online, or if you are a B2B company that’s looking to use ecommerce to automate your fulfillment operations behind the scenes, it’s really important to consider what your goals are. It’s easy to think that sometimes the goals are increasing revenue and increasing profit.
In addition to that there are goals like saving time and creating efficiencies so that you can use your team’s brainpower in other areas that can grow the company. So it’s different for every business, but I think getting really clear on what success and value is for ecommerce is really important.
For example in the case that I mentioned where you are an established retailer and you want to grow more and online, your ecommerce strategy may be just that you want to have your customers browse online and then make their purchase in store. So you’re not actually looking for growth in ecommerce sales, but you’re looking for growth in repeat customers and overall sales growth, but you don’t see the ecommerce revenue growth going. So there’s just different ways to look at it.
The most important thing is to have a clear view of what success looks like when you decide that you’re going to make ecommerce part of your business strategy.
Yury: Are there any elements of customer experience that the business owner should be focused on or pay attention to when they think about ecommerce?
Becky: Yeah, absolutely. I think mobile experience is huge. The majority of website traffic is going through mobile right now and companies are still so far behind in making an easy shoppable website. In addition, making it really easy for people to pay and check out online. Whether it’s paying for Amazon Pay or PayPal, how can you reduce the amount of friction for them to be able to make that purchase?
Rich: Just to follow up on what Yury was saying. I think I’d say I do more of my ecommerce shopping when I’m on my desktop and have that nice big screen. But I certainly have ordered products through a mobile device and it’s frustrating. I’m older, the thumbs thing.
What are some best practices then to make an ecommerce site as easy as possible for that small screen? What are some things that you try and bake into your newest ecommerce sites today?
Becky: Well I think just for the start instead of as a business owner or a marketer at a company, instead of always looking at your website though your desktop, make a point to use it on your phone more often. And when you’re trying to think about what you’re going to change out the homepage banner to be. Design that from the perspective of what is going to be on your phone and how you’re going to scroll through it, rather than the temptation that you’re used to doing like traditional work on your desktop. But really start sketching from the mobile experience first.
And email is such a great example of lost opportunity for mobile formatting because more people are checking their phones for email, yet so few emails are optimized for mobile. They’ll just be really small images and small text or have multiple columns, and it’s just a really missed opportunity that’s easy to fix for ecommerce business, or any business in that case.
Rich: I know that a lot of sites that do ecommerce, they like to write some good copy. But on the mobile it’s more difficult to read. Do you have a different approach when it comes to just laying out product pages?
Becky: I think that all the content is available for customers, whether it is on mobile or desktop. You don’t want to take away things from the mobile user just because it’s more information or more scrolling. So whether it’s stacking menus accordingly or changing the size of your product thumbnails to adapt on mobile. Most ecommerce templates will have a lot of that mobile functionality right out the gate, and you’ll just have to do some fine tuning with a designer or developer to make it really slick.
Yury: You know it’s interesting you said that email is a missed opportunity. I still remember in the beginning of 2000 people were saying that email is dead. But now it’s 2020 and we’re saying that email is the missed opportunity. It’s all about basically adjusting to the times and making sure it operates according to the devices that you operate on.
Rich: Becky, I often hear that customer acquisition costs are things that businesses just don’t consider in any realm, but especially in ecommerce. How can we do a better job of understanding, estimating and tracking our customer acquisition costs?
Becky: That’s a really good question. And it requires a lot of planning and measuring and tracking and knowing your numbers, just like any other business initiative. It’s typically one of the first questions we ask a new client when they’re coming to us for digital marketing to sell more products online is, what are they willing to spend to acquire a new customer and what their customer lifetime value is.
Rich: And just a quick percentage. What percentage of business owners actually have an answer for you right then and say, “Oh, I’m willing to spend $100 to acquire a new customer”?
Becky: I would say 50%.
Becky: It’s pretty good for who can give you at least a ballpark or you can ask a follow-up question and say, “Do you mean $5 or $50 or $500? Which one feels the most like what you’re willing to spend?” And then we’ll get closer to the answer.
Rich: Good follow-up questions.
Yury: Are there any variations based on the industries for the customer acquisition?
Becky: Oh totally, yeah. I think it’s really hard. If we have a client that sells really inexpensive products, they have to have a really high average order value, in my opinion, to have a really good ROI on digital advertising. It’s just really hard.
So not necessarily by industry but by product price and margin it certainly gives you more visibility and creativity to be able to hit numbers when you know that you’ve got some room in your margins and a long-term customer lifetime value.
Rich: And obviously repeat business if going to play into this with the whole customer lifetime value. Some products are one-offs like weddings, hopefully, where other products are going to be purchased time and time again.
Becky: Exactly. Yes.
Yury: Well plus it feels like every stage in the customer journey can be optimized and there are always costs associated with each stage, taking you from awareness all the way to the advocacy, that would require some extra dedicative resources from SEO to advertise and social media campaigns. It’s a pretty complex process.
Becky: Yeah. And I think it’s important to be measuring your customer acquisition costs against all their channels so that you can make changes and iterate. Nothing is ever the same, you just have to keep moving and changing your strategy based on where you’re seeing results.
And with that said, there’s some low hanging fruit for reducing your customer acquisition costs through advertising with remarketing, where you see those ads that follow people around after they’ve been to your website but not made a purchase. Those don’t cost that much to run and they have really great ROI.
So there are some areas where you can make some safe choices for spending money in digital advertising, and then other areas that are a little bit more risky.
Yury: What’s your take on the influencer marketing? Do you do anything with influencers?
Becky: Yeah. We really like working with influencers. We found that they’re great for creating content. So as an example, say you have a new company that is lacking product photography and they can’t afford to hire a professional photographer to do a weeklong photo shoot of all these lifestyle photos on their website. Instead they most likely could find a good match with an influencer or a few influencers where they could send free product to or have monetary compensation. However they do it, different influencers work in different ways.
But that way you’re getting lifestyle content, you’re working with influencers to promote each other, and then we recommend having a long term plan working with influencers. So it’s not just a one-off and instead really finding an influencer that believes in our brand and has a good match and lets create a content schedule so that we’re continuously working together throughout the year on producing content.
Yury: When we think about the influencer, are there any particular things that we want to see in and influencer for our products and services?
Becky: I think finding a good match for an influencer based on having audiences makes a lot of sense. So you want to relay that your influencers follow them. Many influencers will have a stat sheet on who they’re following, and engagement, and just some metrics on how they work and the results that they’ve achieved.
It’s really important to have a plan working with an influencer. It may feel like a kind of a casual relationship because you’re working through social media. You should treat working with an influencer like you would with any business transaction and have a clear set of expectations and deliverables and have a contract together and a timeline, because it could get messy.
Yury: Wow, that sounds like a lot of work. They probably should just call you guys.
Becky: We can definitely help with that.
Rich: It sounds like you’re definitely working with a lot of aspects to your client’s ecommerce. I’m wondering, when you’re working with a retail shop and they’re just starting to consider building an online store, do they generally put everything up for sale or do you recommend they start with a few certain items?
Becky: It really depends on their current technical capabilities. Depending on their POS and how they manage inventory at their store, there may be a simple connection to Shopify or Magento that can be built so that the data of what’s currently in the store and what’s online get matched.
Other times it’s not that easy and product inventory is done more manually at a store. And in that case, I would recommend starting off with a smaller selection of products. Maybe it’s your best sellers or maybe it’s a mix of your best sellers plus your products with a high profit margin.
Your online store doesn’t need to be an exact replica of your brick and mortar store. It can be a curated selection of your favorite products of your customers that visited you when they were on vacation in Maine.
Yury: Becky, can you tell us a little bit more about data feeds and how important they are and how much work they take to create one?
Becky: Well typically a software will have an API, which I don’t know what that stands for.
Rich: Application Protocol Interface, I think.
Becky: Woo hoo, go Rich!
Rich: I don’t know, I might have made that up.
Becky: So if a piece of software has an API, that’s basically meaning it has like a Lego block and you can connect it with another company and snap them together and have it be one piece. So it really helps keep information accurate and not having duplicate entries.
So if you didn’t have a data feed and you added a new product line in your store, you would enter all that information in your store’s retail software system, and then do that same thing again on your online store. Which creates double the amount of work.
But if you get the APIs talking to each other through a data feed, then that can all happen automatically.
Yury: So it sounds like all these complexities can be mitigated by using the right ecommerce platform. Is that correct?
Becky: Yes. Absolutely.
Yury: So what are the ecommerce platforms that you would recommend to anyone who is starting or maybe someone who’s looking to transition to bigger and better solutions?
Becky: So the low barriers of entry I would say would be Squarespace or Shopify. And if that’s all that your budget can afford right now, I would say that it’s better to start with one of those solutions than get your website launched faster, rather than just wait and save up until you can afford a really expensive super complex website.
You can learn so much just by launching and seeing how customers react to your website, and that will give you more insight on where to spend your money in the future. So definitely a fan of the MVP if you are new to ecommerce, starting out with a simple store on Squarespace or Shopify. And then once you start to get sophisticated, Shopify is great for scaling, WooCommerce for WordPress is pretty good. And we work a lot with Magento, which I would say would be for the most complex websites.
Yury: You mentioned the abbreviation MVP, what are you referring to?
Becky: Minimum Viable Product.
Yury: Perfect, thank you.
Becky: It’s keeping things simple and really just getting it to launch rather than striving for perfection.
Rich: We talked a little bit about customer acquisition costs. Getting customers to the website in the first place is going to be critical here. What are some SEO – search engine optimization – tactics that might be specific to ecommerce?
Becky: Well I would say when it comes to search engine optimization, you really want to have unique product descriptions. Also adding content on your category landing pages. So that would be like if someone is shopping for shoes and they’re in the women’s loafer section, having some copy page talking about the loafers. And of those certain long tail keywords you were looking to get ranked for, crosslinking between your product pages and category pages and a content strategy to continue adding. Whether it’s blog articles or resource center, but just finding opportunities to link your brand with content and stories that relate to the keywords that you want to be found under when someone Googles you.
Rich: So creating content that might be educational or entertainment, like Top 10 or something very informational like packing for a camping trip if you’re buying camping gear, to bring people to the website in the first place. And then having links over to those individual products with good descriptions, are some of the building blocks of good SEO?
Becky: Absolutely. Well said, Rich.
Rich: Well thank you.
Yury: Sounds like you know what you’re talking about.
Rich: I may have read something online.
Yury: Becky, a couple of questions about the repeat sales. We know that it’s easier or it”s better to retain the existing customers and sell to the existing customers. Are the tactics different then to obtain new customers, than trying to sell to the existing ones?
Becky: I think there is some overlap. However, when it comes to selling to existing customers, I still believe that email is such a great investment of your time and money. A lot of people complain that there’s too much email that no one sees. The emails in their inboxes, however, I believe that if you’re creating great content it’s an opportunity to continually build that relationship with your customer and get them to come back for repeat purchases.
Yury: Well when you talk about copies, it’s the sales copy or actually educational materials that people would be anticipating to receive from you.
Becky: I think it’s both, yeah. Whether it’s product care and information, or education about products that would be upsells or cross sells to things they’ve already purchased, information about new products that are coming out, bundles.
Yury: Any specific nurturing sequences that you guys utilize in your work, or something kind of industry specific or product specific?
Becky: Yeah, I think emails. So when someone signs up for an email list, having a cadence that you send them that’s all automated so that they can be educated about your brand. Also with abandoned cart emails. So if someone adds something to their cart but they don’t make a purchase, how can you continuously engage with them to be able to complete that purchase cycle.
Rich: Is that something that’s built into tools like Shopify or some of the other ones out there?
Becky: Yes, yeah. A lot of email automation programs like Mailchimp or Klaviyo are great for ecommerce.
Rich: But specific to the cart abandonment you mentioned.
Becky: Yup. So that’s built into any ecommerce platform.
Rich: Very cool. And I’m guessing this is an “it depends” kind of thing, but I know that after I buy something online I get an email everyday until I unsubscribe. Have you found for your clients that there is a right frequency when it comes to sending out emails?
Becky: Typically we recommend, seasonality has a lot to do with it, I think you could send 1-2 emails a week pretty safely.
Rich: Wow, cool. Awesome. How about some ecommerce tips around Google and Facebook ads. Does ecommerce cause you to approach Google ads or Facebook ads in a different or unique way?
Becky: Well definitely syncing up your Facebook and your Instagram with your online store so that your social media is shoppable, is really key. You’re missing an opportunity if you aren’t able to tag products in your post and have customers be able to directly go online and check out those products. So I’d certainly start there.
And then you know you have to create a mix of content where you’re selling, and then content that’s brand and lifestyle. I think that a lot of consumers have a low tolerance for ”sell, sell, sell”, and you really have to approach it more from a brand and lifestyle and sell every once in a while.
Yury: Becky, can you tell us a little bit about how Amazon, Etsy, and eBay feed into ecommerce strategy?
Becky: Yeah, for sure. I think with Amazon and Etsy and eBay, it’s something that every brand should consider as part of their strategy. And they may decide that they don’t want to do either of them or they want to experiment on all of them. Or maybe go all in on one or all of them. That all depends on where you’re able to spend your time and do things right.
So I wouldn’t recommend trying them all at once. But if one of them was more fitting than the other, say perhaps it’s selling on Amazon, going and testing out creating a brand page and adding your products and seeing how it does for you.
Or maybe it’s having the option to sell on eBay and use a data feed to get the products in your ecommerce store directly on eBay. A lot of it is just testing and trying out what works best.
Yury: Well speaking about what works best, are there any best practices that are applicable to all three platforms? Or let’s say Amazon, because it seems like something that everyone knows and uses.
Becky: Well I think that you want to consider what products you are putting on these platforms and how competitive they are to other products on the platforms. Because that will play into how you get found in search, and if you’re doing advertising how expensive it will be to advertise to get your products promoted.
So I think part of making that decision, and of what platform to choose, is just doing some of your own research and seeing where you have an opportunity to grow on those platforms where shoppers are underserved.
Rich: Well I’m going to tell you Becky, that Yury is going to be very disappointed that I get to ask this question because he almost always gets to ask it. But I’m going to ask it this time because it’s my turn.
Yury: Go for it. But only this time.
Rich: Becky, this is a question we ask all of our experts in the business economy here in the state of Maine. What one thing would you change if you could to improve the business ecosystem here in the state?
Becky: Well we touched on this a little bit earlier, but I would have to say having access to lightning fast internet everywhere in Maine. Whether you’re in northern Maine or central Maine or in South Portland, wherever it may be, on an island. I think that fast internet gives anyone opportunity to work remotely and be empowered through technology, and not have to compromise their service or their business because of internet speed.
I think in addition to people having their own businesses anywhere in the state and operating them with fast internet speed, it’s also a really big consideration for companies that are moving from another part of the country to Maine. And having their spouses or partners be able to keep their jobs and work remotely, you wouldn’t want to have to lose a potential business coming to Maine because we weren’t able to support remote workers.
Yury: That is a great recommendation. Thank you. Becky, so for everyone listening to the show who would like to learn more about the work that you do and just simply connect with you, where can they find you?
Becky: Well my website is ibeccreative, you can also find me on Instagram @ibeccreative and @wildwoodoysterco. And most importantly, if you are interested in ecommerce, I really hope that you will check out the Maine Ecommerce Collective website, it’s maineecommercecollective.com.
Rich: Sounds fantastic. Becky, this has been great. Thank you so much for coming by today.
Becky: Thank you Rich, thank you Yury.
Yury: It was a delight.