September 07, 2004
Case Study

How to Build Your eretail Business with a Blog (6-8% of Readers Convert to Buyers)

SUMMARY: Blogs are hip and cool right now, but can a Blog really impact a major eretailer's bottom line? Turns out, the largest direct-to-consumer retailer in its category online has been using a Blog to improve its own and affiliate sales for more than two years. Find out exactly how they do it in our exclusive Case Study:
CHALLENGE President Bill Broadbent's been in the t-shirt business since the late 1970s, wholesaling famous band and brand logo shirts to retailers across America.

Then on a whim in 1998, he decided to pop up a Yahoo! store, offering a few popular t-shirts direct to consumers online. "We got an order the first day," he says. "It was a lot easier then; there wasn't a lot of online competition."

Within a few years he had tens of thousands of regular customers -- so much business, in fact, that he decided to leave the wholesale world for a while and focus entirely on online. The site's best traffic drivers were search engine optimization, affiliate marketing, and sending weekly newsletters to the site's opt-in list of nearly half a million consumers.

But by late 2002, the easy days were coming to an end.

More competitors were optimizing for the same search engine keywords and/or trying to poach the best affiliates. Plus, problems of evading email filters had slashed the site's newsletter response rates (up to 50% of a permission mailer's message may be stopped as false positives by filters, especially if your message is long and wordy).

T-shirt margins are fairly low, so Broadbent didn't want to compete by throwing piles of cash at the problem. He had to acquire and resell customers for less than $5 per account if possible.

How could he make past marketing successes work better again?


Broadbent's newsletters were incredibly popular because they were content-rich. Instead of merely promoting a t-shirt of the week, the site's copywriter Chad Koch crafted a 1,000-2,000 word essay about whatever was pictured on that particular t-shirt.

For example, to promote a Miles Davis t-shirt, he wrote a fascinating bio of the man and his music.

Readers adored the essays, but the content-based filters that much of corporate America relies on found all-too-many words (innocently used naturally) that added up to a possible spam message.

To get around this problem, Broadbent radically revised the newsletter to become nothing more than a short summary of that week's story, along with a link to read more online. (See sample below.) Now, loads of other retailers and mass emailers have done this, but Broadbent took the tactic several steps further to turn the online story into a high-impact guerrilla marketing campaign:

-> Tactic #1. Turn your newsletter articles into a Blog

Instead of posting articles online using the site's normal content management system, Broadbent's Web team installed Blog software (link below) and created a specific URL for the Blog.

Blogs are more likely to be picked up by search engines quickly and ranked well, compared to sites using other sorts of dynamic content management systems. Most eretailers use dynamic content management, so a Blog can get you search engine attention you might have otherwise been lacking.

Search engines take headlines more seriously than body copy. That's why Koch crafted his brief headlines to include keywords he hoped consumers might use when they surfed search engines. He didn't use puns or clever verbiage, but straightforward wording such as:

o Smokey Bear - 60 Years of Vigilance
o July 4th - Independence Day
o Slinky - Such a Wonderful Toy
o The Beatles - The Fab Four Forever

To encourage outside linking, each blog entry had its own unique URL that never changed. (You never want to put great content in frames or using session IDs that won't work when someone else clicks on them.)

The Web team left Blog entries up permanently, hoping to build up a library of evergreen content ranked under hundreds of search engine terms. A blog item once posted might be accessed that day, or several years later.

They combined content and commerce on the Blog template. Each page had the classic Blog links to archives at the left side. Commerce elements included:
o A prominent 800 number
o A search box to search t-shirt categories
o Small pics of the top 9 best-selling t-shirts
o Links to customer service, the cart, affiliate sign-up

-> Tactic #2. Offer Blog newsfeeds in a variety of formats

Too many blogs rely on their charm alone to drive repeat readership. But the fact is, people are too busy to remember to surf a site frequently that's not critical to their lives.'s Web team used a variety of tactics to get one-time viewers to continue to re-visit the blog, including:

o A sign-up form on every page to get the Blog newsletter.
o A refer-a-friend form on every page.
o No fewer than four varieties of headline newsfeeds for anyone who wanted to use one, including XML, ATOM, RSD, and RDF.

-> Tactic #3. Strongly encourage affiliates and other sites to reuse Blog entries

"We allow anyone to reprint or reuse our Blog as long as our signature resource box is on it linking back to," says Broadbent.

Although each article is fairly lengthy for Blog-format, Koch is careful to divide the articles with informative subheads, and to write them in such a way that another site or newsletter could excerpt just that subheaded section and still have valuable content. After all, other folks may not want such long stories.

The marketing team heavily encouraged affiliates to use and edit or rewrite Blog content in their own newsletters and sites. "We tell them you can use this as fodder to create your own exclusive content."

Unlike other eretailers, Broadbent doesn't fret that affiliates will steal search traffic he could have been getting directly without paying commission. "We used to worry, but so many affiliates worked so hard that we decided the more money we can pay them the better." RESULTS

Site sales tripled during 2003, and have continued strong in 2004. Altogether, blog content helps to bring in about 35% of total site sales -- 10% from the email newsletter, 20% from affiliates who often reuse the content, and 5% from Blog traffic itself.

Blog readers are among the traffic most likely to convert to buyers. "Six to eight percent of Blog readers buy something. Once someone finds a Blog entry and reads the whole thing, they are about as qualified as you can get." won Internet Retailer magazine's award as one of the top 50 eretailers in January 2004. And, according to Alexa rankings, the site is by far the dominant one in its category.

Encouraging affiliates to use Blog content proved a godsend during the past 12 months, as search engines changed the algorithms used to rank pages. "We've bounced in and out of Google. It would have been a major sales loss if the affiliates weren't also in there."

The site's most popular Blog item was an article on Orange County Choppers, a show on the Discovery Channel. "It got more than 200,000 views, and 10-20 people called up saying they wanted to meet those pilots," says Broadbent.

Other popular content includes a bio of Albert Einstein ("A lot of science sites use factoids from it and link back, they don't use the entire newsletter.") Broadbent has even seen T-ShirtKing Blog content posted on a site for Israeli schoolchildren learning English. If you make your content accessible and useful, users will come.

Useful links related to this article:

Creative samples for Blog campaign's Blog

Movable Type - T-ShirtKing's Blog uses this low-cost content management system

Business Blogs: How Successful Companies Get Real Results With Weblogs (Note: requires a fee)

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