There are so many unknowns when it comes to creating and marketing ingestible products. Any time someone is asked to ingest something, there is a high level of trust involved. There are laws in place that provide guidance on how ingestible products should be labelled, how they should be stored, and how they should be shipped. While there are very few restrictions in place surrounding the marketing and storage of tea, I encountered a lot of pushback when I tried to promote my tea. Many of influencers I contacted and the marketing platforms I used seemed to be uncomfortable promoting any sort of ingestible product. I suspect this has a lot to do with the tortious nature of litigation in the United States and the fact that food makers are regularly sued when things go wrong or when customers are feeling opportunistic. Consumers in New Zealand don’t generally think like that. If I have a meal at a restaurant and become sick as a result, my first instinct isn’t to pick up the phone to my lawyer. My first instinct is to get better and then perhaps complain to the restaurant owner at a later date. Trying to deal with multijurisdictional issues like this is hard for marketing platforms and it is also hard for influencers.

I made an important observation about my packaging a few days after my teabags arrived from China: the packaging I had designed looked almost out of place on my kitchen counter. I had designed the box with social media in mind — I wanted people to take pictures of the box and the teabag wrappers. However, I knew that if the packaging didn’t look good in my kitchen, many customers would feel the same way. The tea packaging had to sit proudly on a customer’s kitchen counter so they were reminded to consume the tea and could show it off to their friends. Packaging should look at home in the environment in which it is meant to sit. If you are selling a liquid hand soap, the soap’s packaging needs to look good in a bathroom. That is the main reason Aesop products sell so well. It has nothing to do with the products themselves; it simply comes down to the packaging and how it looks in the appropriate setting. The rule applies to almost every consumer product that isn’t immediately consumed. If you are selling something that will sit on a desk, like a desktop monitor, it has to look good on a desk. If you are selling something that will sit in a car, it has to look good in a car. It’s an obvious consideration for non-perishable products, but is far less obvious when products are designed to be ingested. In any kitchen, my tea box was competing for shelf and bench space with conventional supermarket products that had packaging that all followed conventional design rules. Of course, I was conscious of the trade-off. These same products sold poorly online because their packaging wasn’t right for the social media environment. Unfortunately, I completely forgot about this design rule when it came to my next packaging redesign. The result was the same — packaging that suited online marketing, but looked terrible in its natural setting. A cheetah looks at home in the wild, but looks out of place when seated at a dinner table. Changing packaging is an incredibly expensive exercise, so I couldn’t demonstrate an understanding of the rule for years.

Packaging should look at home in the environment in which it is meant to sit

After concluding that the tea was safe to drink, I decided that it was time to add the teabags as an option on the website. Financially, I was seriously in the red at that point and desperately needed to sell through the stock to recoup some of the money I had invested. The good news was that I only needed to sell a small amount of the stock to break even; the bad news was that I had no idea how I was going to sell even a fraction of what I had ordered. All at once, I was confronted by several practical issues. The first issue was product photography. At the time, I was using stock images of loose leaf tea on the website with alluring product names like “Extreme Teatox” and “28 Day Skinny Tea Detox”. Loose leaf tea is notoriously not photogenic, so it made sense to use stock photography rather than having my own photos taken. In hindsight, it was amazing that anyone purchased anything from the website. It necessitated a lot of imagination and required a real leap of faith. Customers knew they were going to receive a tea-based product of some sort, but had absolutely no idea what the packaging or product would look like.

Now that I had teabags, product photography was essential. After all, that was the whole idea — create photogenic packaging that would stand out on social media. Customers needed to know what it was that they were buying. I had to turn my mind to how I wanted the website to look and how I wanted customers to perceive the products I was selling. Photos are the most important element on any ecommerce website. It doesn’t matter if you have a basic or generic theme that tens of thousands of other online stores are using, it is the photography that will help a brand stand apart from competitors. When a customer visits a website, they are looking for a cue to buy something. If the person has been directed to go to a website by an influencer or someone they trust, the work has been done for the business. If the person has somehow stumbles across a website or otherwise found out about it through more conventional marketing channels, the website has to do a lot of work. There is no shop assistant there to drive up sales or point customers in the right direction. Often, the product pictures have to do the talking.

There are a lot of factors that need to be considered before committing to website photography. What colour background should be used? What shape will the final images be on the website — square or rectangular? What will the final pixel dimensions be? Will someone be holding the tea or will it sit on a desk? How much does it cost to hire a model? What will they be wearing? How much does it cost to hire a photographer? Where will the shoot take place? Will additional products be added in the future and can the photography setup be replicated? I didn’t have the answer to any of those questions. The only thing I knew was that I needed three product photos and a hero image.

At the time, there weren’t many places in New Zealand offering product photography packages. I approached countless photographers and creative agencies and received a handful of quotes. Most of the quotes were in the range of $500-$800 for four table-top photos. At the time, it was hard for me to understand how someone could justify charging $200 per picture for putting a box of tea on a table and clicking a button on a camera. I now know that a lot more goes into the preparation and editing of the images. When hiring a photographer, you are also paying for someone’s experience and experience is built up over a long time. When considering whether or not to hire a creative, make sure that they have ideas on their own and can think for themselves without needing to be prompted. A true creative doesn’t need to be told what to do and will be able to offer independent ideas. The best hairdressers don’t need to be told exactly what to do — they are able to offer suggestions based on someone’s hair texture, hair density, and facial features. Alarm bells should immediately go off if you are the one paying for a service and you also have to come up with all the ideas.

When considering whether or not to hire a creative, make sure that they have ideas on their own and can think for themselves without needing to be prompted

At the time, I didn’t see the value in good product photos. My loose-leaf tea was selling just fine without proper photography. I couldn’t bring myself to pay almost $1,000 for something I felt added so little. I was also still smarting from all the import costs and transportation fees associated with getting the tea into the country. I had a hard time coming to terms with all of the additional expenses that were popping up. The true cost of having a product business was really beginning to dawn on me.

Once again, I decided to forego proper product photography. I rented a DSLR camera and tried to take the photos myself. Thanks to YouTube, I was able to give myself a crash course in photo composition, lighting, and post production work. It became clear to me over the next few days that I should have hired a professional. When it comes to photography, some people have it and some people don’t. I fell into the latter camp. In the interests of getting something on the website, I decided to continue with my stock image strategy. It’s easy to think that cutting corners is a good idea when you already have something that is working. The problem is that I didn’t know how many customers were being turned away by my existing strategy and how much revenue I was missing out on. I balked at the idea of spending up to $200 per image, but what if those images could have boosted sales by $200 a day? Over a year, that’s an extra $73,000 in revenue from an $800 spend. When you have such an emotional attachment to money, as I did, you often make short term decisions at the expense of long term gains. You can quickly see how this can snowball for a small business. An extra $73,000 a year in revenue would have given me the ability to release additional products and allowed me to spend more money on marketing, which in turn, could have generated more sales and revenue for the business.

I thought that sales were going to explode the minute I put teabags on the website. Unsurprisingly, it was very difficult to market the teabags without product photography. I had to wait months for sales to noticeably pick up. The product started to gain traction on Tumblr and Instagram as customers took photos and directed people to the website. I then used these photos on my own social media accounts to push the teabags, which boosted sales further. Photography may seem like a scam (and in most cases, it is) but photographers can charge whatever they want because they know that a business will, in theory, make the money back.

Product photography is a “shovels-to-miners” business. A shovels-to-miners business is a business that provides a product or service to another person or business engaged in the active pursuit of making money. Usually, it involves supplying products or services to other businesses that are engaged in some sort of speculative activity. The term was inspired by a phenomenon that is observable during any gold rush — the businesses that often make the most amount of money during a gold rush are the ones supplying shovels, clothing, and supplies to the miners. The miners themselves often make no money at all. Levi Strauss got his start by supplying bedding, clothing, and other dry goods to miners during the California Gold Rush. He then used the money he made from his dry goods business to produce blue denim jeans for workers. The rest is history.

The best shovels-to-miners businesses will either directly or indirectly make or save other businesses money. In the case of product photography, photographers know that businesses using their services are going to use the photos to directly make money from end consumers. Almost all businesses that provide business services or business support are able to charge inflated rates because they know that their clients are directly or indirectly using those services to make money from end consumers. Something as simple as a menswear store selling suits could be a shovels-to-miners business. Men have to purchase suits because it is the uniform that allows them to work in most office settings. Without a suit, men wouldn’t be able to work in most offices. If they couldn’t work, they would lose their source of income. It makes sense then, that they would purchase a suit so they can continue to make money. If you follow the money, it is easy to identify a shovels-to-miners business. Unfortunately, I discovered the concept too late for it to have a meaningful impact on my business.

Over time, I was able to gain a better understanding of social media and how I needed to be marketing my products on the different platforms. While I was constantly learning and improving, it became glaringly obvious that I needed more products. With only one product, I found it impossible to create enough content to facilitate regular social media posts. I could do a post about the health properties of the tea and another post about how effective the tea was and another post about how reasonably priced the tea was, but then what? I drew it out as long as I could, but I soon exhausted all of my marketing material. There are only so many things that can be said about a product before a customer loses interest. Customers don’t want to see the same post over and over; they want fresh content. Businesses with multiple product offerings don’t encounter this problem right away because they can create new deals and bundle options to boost sales. I didn’t know it at the time, but even with a range, it is still a struggle for most businesses to create enough content.

In a bid to provide fresh content for consumers, many companies marketing through social media adopt a strategy of posting completely irrelevant content and trying to siphon off engaged consumers. Engagement is all but guaranteed if a company posts a picture of the clear blue water in the Maldives or some glazed donuts or an attractive athlete. Most of the brands I followed started to use this strategy as a way of building up a following on Instagram. Every once and a while they would slip in a picture of their products and hope that their followers wouldn’t get too upset. When that didn’t work, these same brands created new Instagram accounts that were dedicated to the travel or fashion or celebrities and used the same strategy. Customers would be following a smoothie bowl account which was, unbeknownst to them, actually run by a company that didn’t share their passion for healthy living. Trojan horse marketing isn’t new. Consumer product companies are always looking for ways to add lifestyle components to their brands without the knowledge of consumers.

As well as relying on what brands say, customers tend to look for recommendations from people they trust or look up to or otherwise believe to be impartial. It is this basic human need to look for outside guidance that gave birth to influencer marketing as an industry. There is nothing new about marketing in this way. Celebrities have been fronting advertising campaigns and guiding consumer spending since time immemorial. The difference is that celebrities generally have widespread appeal and name recognition so companies are willing to pay to have their face plastered on a billboard or placed not so subtly in a magazine. Billions of people can immediately recognise Brad Pitt’s face, which makes him a safe bet for an advertising campaign. When consumers see Brad Pitt’s face being used to promote a cologne they go out and purchase the scent because it gives normal working people a touch point with something Brad Pitt has been exposed to. It never occurs to consumers that he is being paid to promote the products.

With influencer marketing on social media, influencers have almost no recognition outside of their core audience on social media. In paying a social media influencer, companies can tap into a captive audience spread across multiple platforms. There is no point putting an influencer’s face on a billboard because most people won’t know who it is. However, give an influencer some cologne to promote and their audience will lap it up. Unlike traditional celebrity-based marketing, you are not paying for an image, you are paying for an audience.

While many online business owners seem to have an intuitive understanding of influencer marketing, larger companies often struggle to effectively engage influencers. In early 2015, Colgate ran an ad campaign on television in New Zealand and Australia featuring two beauty and makeup influencers, Chloe Morello and Loz Curtis. At the time, Chloe Morello had 584,000 followers on Instagram and 1.4 million subscribers on YouTube, while Loz Curtis had 1.4 million followers on Instagram and 3.3 million subscribers on YouTube. The campaign was for a product called Colgate Optic White, which according to the company, can make your teeth “4 shades visibly whiter” — doesn’t sound like complete bullshit to me. The problem with the campaign was that the influencers had absolutely no universal appeal. When I first saw the ad, I had no idea who they were. I just assumed they were generic commercial actors. I was only able to connect the dots months later as social media started to take up more and more of my time. If Colgate toothpaste, a brand owned by one of the largest companies in the world, doesn’t understand influencer marketing, it’s not surprising that so many other companies get it wrong. The better strategy here would have been to pay the influencers to create YouTube videos that highlight the teeth whitening benefits of Colgate’s products. If each influencer had posted a video, it could have reached a collective audience of 4.7 million viewers. Captive consumers hang on every word and purchase every product recommendation. Colgate’s failure is an example of what happens when you have employees who don’t understand consumer behaviour and aren’t financially accountable for the poor decisions they make.

Brands should always have a reason to post on social media. Aimlessly posting variations of the same picture or caption each day doesn’t generate sales. I like it when social media is used by brands as a way of connecting with customers and informing them about sales or new releases or new features or disruptions to service. I am much less fond of companies that post pictures of cute animals in an attempt to generate engagement. ‘Likes’ in themselves don’t make money and certainly don’t pay the bills. ‘Likes’ are only useful if they lead to sales. Companies still have to find ways of getting people to a website and converting those customers. It is the same challenge faced by traditional retail stores. Physical stores have to find ways of getting customers through the door. The formula is, however, much simpler in physical retail. Retail stores can get away with doing no marketing and still have customers walk through the door if the store is in a good location next to other retailers that pay for marketing. It’s a type of moral hazard. If none of the retailers in a mall were willing to spend any money on outside advertising, sales would universally dip, and someone would have to step up.

The difficultly with ecommerce is that it is almost impossible to get a potential customer to visit a website without paying for advertising. It is something traditional retail stores don’t have to contend with. Imagine if a retail store owner at a mall had to pay a mall operator $2-5 for every person who walked inside their store. So, if a retailer had 500 people through a store in a day, they would have to pay between $1,000 and $2,500. With rent and all of the other expenses associated with being in business, it could mean that the retailer would have to make in excess of $5,000 in a day, just to break even. It’s an absurd proposition, but it’s exactly what online stores are now faced with. The challenge for a business is figuring out where to allocate an advertising spend, be it on Facebook, Instagram (also Facebook), Twitter, Google, emails, podcasts, direct marketing, billboards, radio, and/or influencers. Now imagine that a retailer is required to pay $2 each time a customer looks at the signage of a store, but doesn’t enter. Traditional retailers would think that that was absurd, but online businesses have accepted this as a legitimate marketing cost. Each time a business does a post on Facebook and pays for it to be boosted, there is a very good chance that it will receive no engagement and the company will receive no business as a result. Businesses effectively end up paying for someone to look inside a window, without ever having to enter.

The most valuable websites in the world are those websites that people go to every day, without being prompted. Every single day, I might go onto Google, Reddit, The New York Times, Netflix, Twitter, YouTube, and Gmail along with a handful of other sites. More often than not, I will type in the domain name directly into my browser. The best websites can generate traffic without ever having to advertise. Good websites can generate traffic with only a limited amount of advertising throughout the year. Bad websites have to advertise every day to draw in visitors.

To achieve direct and organic website visitors, some sort of amalgamating service is likely required. On the ecommerce front, Amazon can do draw in a huge number of organic visitors because it is able to sell and deliver almost every product on earth. It becomes habit forming. Its Amazon Prime membership ensures that shoppers won’t go anywhere else. By going after the video streaming market, Amazon will soon have a daily touch-point with customers if it is able to improve its original content offering. It is impossible for smaller online stores to generate substantial traffic without advertising. Why would anyone have gone to each day without being prompted? The products stayed the same; the prices stayed the same; the content stayed the same. It wouldn’t have made any sense. Customers will go to the website when they have a reason to go to the website — when there’s a sale, when they have run out of something, or when they want to try something new or different. No matter what, customers will almost always need to be prompted to purchase and reminded of a website’s existence.

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