“The action is in the juice” are the first words you see when you read the story of Huckberry founders, Andy Forch and Richard Greiner.
Six short years ago, Andy and Rich sat freezing their butts off on a rickety chairlift on the backside of Squaw Valley, California when they finally decided to go for it. After personal investments of $10,000 each and several sleepless nights later, Huckberry is a rising star in the outdoor retail industry -- equal parts store, magazine, and inspiration.
Today, Huckberry has been featured in major publications such as Outside Magazine, Business Insider, and Forbes; has grown to more than 80 employees; and sells well over 750,000 products per year.
Behind much of the Huckberry marketing genius that you see today? Micah McKay.
Micah, Brand Management and Business Development Director at Huckberry, has his hands in just about everything within the company. We had the epic opportunity to sit down with Micah to learn how Huckberry can turn a profit year after year, and in the process, gain loyal customers who stay with them for life.
Today I’m going to show you exactly how Huckberry fuels their multimillion-dollar outdoor retail business with a simple, yet undeniably effective approach to marketing.
Let’s get into it!
“The right product sells itself,” Micah laughs when I asked him why he thinks Huckberry has been so successful over the years. “We’re focused on telling an authentic brand story. A story that people can relate to. And when you pair that with great products, it’s a win-win.”
When Huckberry was first founded, of course there were men’s retail stores. There were also a ton of outdoor magazines. But no company seemed to speak to the young, 25-year-old adventure seekers. The ones that lived in the city and spent their weekends in the wilderness.
What the founders of Huckberry realized was that every great business starts with an incredibly unique story. The Huckberry story is carefully crafted and weaved into the DNA of their company-- starting from the moment a user lands on their website:
“Gear for Today. Inspiration for Tomorrow.”
“We always try to focus on the story, I mean, we’re storytellers at heart. We want to get people's ‘mindshare’ instead of wallet share. The entire company feels the same way. Crafting unique imagery and copy for every single touchpoint is crucial to our business.”
Once you sign up to be a Huckberry member (more on that later), you’re directed to yet another personal touch. Huckberry reinforces their story by reminding you exactly what you’ll get from them every week. And the social proof from Men’s Journal featured prominently front-and-center is icing on the cake:
This storytelling approach to marketing can be found organically across other channels as well. Their Instagram account, for example, is a mix of high-quality product photos and outdoor inspiration.[*]
Everything from the photo to the caption is a strategic move to tell the Huckberry story.
Takeaway: Take time to carefully consider every single little detail of the moment when a customer comes across your company’s website for the first time. Whether someone discovers your business organically on Instagram or through a search engine like Google, your story needs to be so compelling and so unique that it hooks the person in to want to find out more.
Use product reviews, testimonials from customers, beautiful imagery or videos, and a simple, mobile-friendly website design in order to establish trust with potential customers immediately.
For ecommerce businesses, the products are what ultimately turn a profit. Carving out a niche for your business in today’s crowded online space can be a considerable challenge.
Micah explains, “we feature a lot of gear from top brands that, through our data analysis, people purchase again and again. But in the retail space, you have to have several products that help you to stand out. For us, that means we have a lot of items in our inventory that allow us to do some fun things on the marketing side.”
Like this funny Tweet directing their audience to the Huckberry Guide for Indoorsmen - complete with Astronaut Slippers, bath robes, coffee makers, whiskey glasses, and more.[*]
In scouring the Huckberry website it immediately becomes clear what they mean. They don’t just sell clothing for men. They also sell quirky items that allow their advertising and content teams to be versatile in what and how they approach marketing.
“One of our best sellers as of late is our GrowlerWerks Limited Edition UKEG Growler. That thing has been flying off the shelf. ”
By diversifying the items that they offer on their website, they create a wide variety of entry points for casual shoppers and customers. These customers can be the men shopping for themselves or even friends and family looking for great gifts for the holidays.
For example, this top-selling bar of soap shaped like the Grand Teton mountains. What outdoor enthusiast wouldn’t love this as a gift?
Takeaway: Have you taken the time to understand your target customer inside and out? What about your product do they love? What do they wish they had more of? Consider crafting a variety of unique and even fun products to help people get in the door. In order to get a full picture of your customers, ensure that all of your teams are communicating.
I recommend designating a team leader from marketing, sales, support, and product to create a weekly company report. This report should include objective data such as what products are selling (and which are not), the amount of sales for each product, and which products are increasing in popularity. The report should also include qualitative data such as what your customers are saying about the products (reviews), what questions they’re asking about each product, and what peers/competition are releasing.
For a small company like Huckberry that didn’t have a lot of funding or cash on hand when they started out in 2010, marketing channels were extremely limited.
“We’ve gotten very crafty and resourceful over the last six years with marketing,” Micah jokes after I asked him what has been their most effective channels. “We didn’t have a lot of money for advertising, so we got creative. In the first year, we partnered with The Art of Manliness and Outside to slowly grow our brand name.”
The fruitful partnership resulted in two-way affiliate links, dedicated product pages, content, and a lot more - benefiting both parties along the way.
“Getting the product into the right editors and publishers hands has been critical for us as a retailer. Our marketing strategy is very relationship-based, meaning that it all comes down to our relationship between us and our affiliates and us and our customers.”
When I asked Micah how relationships with affiliates eventually get the product into a customer’s hands, he responded, “when you’re first starting out and you’re a small brand, name recognition and brand trust are near zero. But when you have a company like Outside Magazine or The Art of Manliness mention your name in an article or decide to partner with you on a project, your name recognition and brand trust instantly skyrocket.”
And if you’re wondering just how powerful affiliate marketing can be, check out the above article from Business Insider that was shared more than 39,000 times. Photo credit is given to Huckberry prominently under the first image and again multiple times throughout the article.
Most importantly, there are several affiliate links leading directly back to the Huckberry product page if users want to view or purchase the product.[*]
It’s nearly impossible to understate just how important big-name ambassadors can be for your brand and/or your product.
Huckberry is right up there with one of the best ambassador programs in the world. The list of prominent photographers, travelers, bloggers, and fashion experts goes on and on.[*]
They really took it to the next level recently with the addition of world-renowned photographer, Chris Burkard, to their program.
There are several ways to structure ambassador programs, but in most cases, ambassadors are either paid a flat commission for mentioning the brand/product in their social media posts or they’re provided free gear in return for a certain amount of mentions per month. We’ve seen ambassador programs work in both cases, but the most common program is the commission structure.
All of this effort has certainly paid off for Huckberry. Chris Burkard has more than three million followers on Instagram alone, produces films, and travels the world. Here is an example of where Huckberry and Chris Burkard teamed up to “hit the open road in search of freedom.”
The result? An epic on-brand tale of Burkard’s adventures and life in a van. The video helps to pull readers in with a visual story, and then just below the video on Burkard’s ambassador page, we’re hit with a call to action (CTA) - leading us directly to the place where we can shop Chris’ favorite gear: Huckberry.
Takeaway: If you’re a small brand or ecommerce business, you don’t need a huge marketing budget to get your product out there. Take after Huckberry and focus on relationship marketing. Build connections with publishers and even consider starting an ambassador program. Many ambassadors will accept a small payment, publicity, or even a few products in exchange for a partnership.
For many ecommerce businesses, Instagram and LinkedIn are a great place to start. Search relevant keywords within your industry to find influencers (keep in mind that if you’re a smaller business, you might have to start small). Once you’ve identified a list of potential candidates, reach out to each with a personal message and offer. You can start with an offer, or as I like to do, let them dictate the terms. Ask them if they’re currently working with any other brands and what they typically look for in terms of compensation.
You may be wondering why Huckberry chooses to focus so much energy and attention on creating a unique brand story and publishing content around that story.
The answer is: it works.
Micah explains, “Roundups, gift guides, gear guides, you name it, have all been a huge part of why people enjoy our brand. To take directly from our mantra, we’re not just selling products, we’re selling inspiration.”
Looking at the Huckberry website, it’s clear that they are focused on creating really valuable content. There’s an entire section dedicated to simply “Read” (MailChimp does exactly the same thing with their “Learning” section.)
But I wondered if all of this content creation really works. Does it drive traffic to their website?
I turned to Google and searched, “men’s outdoor holiday gift guide” and there Huckberry was! Right on the first page of the Google SERP. Shopify also found similar results when they began to focus on SEO with high-volume branded keywords.
Content for Huckberry isn’t something they just stick in their newsletter and on their website.
“We consider keywords, search intentions, and create our content accordingly. Everything we create has an SEO element to it. It helps to ensure that our content reaches as far as possible,” says Micah.
One of my favorite tools to identify potential content keywords is the Keyword Explorer Tool from the experts at Moz. I start with the keyword I’m thinking of targeting such as Ecommerce Marketing:
Keyword Explorer shows me a ton of useful information such as search volume, difficulty, organic CTR, and more:
Once I have an idea of the general performance of Ecommerce Marketing I click on “See all suggestions” to get more content ideas:
Once I’ve completed the steps above, I add all relevant keywords and content ideas to a pre-made Ecommerce Content SEO Checklist.
Get My Ecommerce SEO Content Checklist
Creating this routine helps me to prioritize my editorial schedule, set achievable SEO content goals and increase monthly search traffic.
Huckberry implements this same strategy. Here’s a great example of their SEO content strategy in action:
The Huckberry team also recognizes that a lot of their content will never make it to the first page of Google and they are completely fine with that. They are on a mission to inspire, and they mean it.
Takeaway: Brands and businesses with winning content strategies write useful, educational, entertaining, and actionable content for their readers that’s optimized for SEO. First, start with user intent when creating content ideas for your website. Determine user intent by analyzing your most visited website pages, your most asked customer questions, your peers and your competitors.
Once you have an idea of the type of content your audience is looking for, perform deep keyword research analysis and brainstorm several dozen content topic ideas. Finally, create specific, actionable goals for each piece of content and implement content best practices. A successful content strategy is a mix of quality content, SEO optimization, and patience.
“We make decisions all the time that if you were an ecommerce guru, you’d hate Huckberry.” -Richard Greiner (Co-Founder)
That tells you just about everything you need to know about how Huckberry approaches their email campaigns.
One thing that’s worth noting here is that Huckberry is a members-only website. You can browse their site and read their articles, but if you want to make a purchase than you have to sign up (for free) -- making email an important part of communication with their customers.
Email is a multi-pronged communication channel for Huckberry. When users sign up to be a Huckberry member, it puts them further down the sales funnel than a casual website visitor. Email is also a way to communicate the Huckberry story with their audience on a regular basis.
Again, from the very first welcome email, you can feel Huckberry’s storytelling approach woven into the details along with a perfectly placed CTA to “Explore”:
“Our emails read very editorial in nature,” explains McKay, “We’re not just here to sell. We want to add value to customers’ lives in ways they won’t find from other companies.”
For example, Huckberry’s weekly email edition features stories of people who live and breathe the outdoors, inspirational blog posts, Spotify ‘Song of the Day,’ and a section called “Diversions” that links to interesting stories elsewhere on the web.
Yes, you read that correctly. Huckberry diverts people to other websites.
“We try to speak in the language of our customers. ‘See you out there’, for example, is one of the taglines we always use in our emails because we hear customers saying that exact same thing to us.”
Using the Sumo List Builder tool, Huckberry has a single email signup form that appears intermittently on various pages throughout the website to ensure that they’re collecting as many emails as possible. However Micah says, “We want to make people feel as if signing up is their choice, that it’s not forced. Our email CTAs are fresh and on-brand, not intrusive.”
I’ve shown this email and social signup CTA in previous examples, but it’s worth a peek here again!
Takeaway: Focus on building a really valuable newsletter for your audience and customers. Dozens of emails arrive in people’s inboxes every single day. By focusing on value, education, and entertainment, not sales or promotion, your emails will be opened at a much higher rate. And when truly done right, people will actually look forward to receiving your email each week.
Not surprisingly, Facebook and Instagram retargeting ads have played an important role in turning traffic into leads for Huckberry.
“Part of the reason we’ve seen such success with social media advertising is because we’ve moved away from static imagery to animated GIFs and videos to get people to our website. For example, we used a video to promote our portable keg product by GrowlerWerks, which was an instant hit.”
To put their strategy to the test, I added a few items to my cart on the Huckberry website and then jumped over to Instagram to see if I would be served an interactive ad. Sure enough, the moment I opened up the app a beautiful carousel ad was featured prominently in my feed:
The ad contained a mix of items that I had added to my cart as well as similar items that I might be interested in. You can do the same to efficiently advertise your own ecommerce products.[*]
Storytelling is also an important part of the Huckberry advertising strategy. Micah explains, “Ad targeting is very focused on selling and upselling to our current audience on social media. A lot of the time that means we need to get creative. Instead of just showing our products over and over, we aim to inspire our audience with some of our most popular content. We’ve found that it drives a lot more engagement than a typical ad.”
When I click ‘Learn More’ on the Instagram ad above I am directed to a story on Huckberry’s website titled Shelter: Cabin Chronicles. No BS, just really interesting, high-quality content (and of course the classic Huckberry email CTA.)[*]
Takeaway: Use a two-part approach when it comes to Facebook and Instagram advertising.
Part 1: Create retargeting ads to reach customers who have visited specific pages or products on your website and serve highly relevant, specific ad content to them. Retargeting ads to people who add individual products to their cart is also extremely effective (as seen in the example above).
Part 2: Use your most engaging content as an advertisement to increase engagement and brand awareness around your content and product.
Whether you’re selling a product, capturing emails, promoting an event, or anything in between, your landing page is the cornerstone of every marketing campaign.
For an ecommerce retailer like Huckberry, a high-converting landing page can mean the difference between a purchase and a cart abandonment.
“We A/B test everything. Images, copy, layout, format, color… everything. It doesn’t matter if we’re designing a landing page for a product or a piece of content, we always ask: what grabs the user’s attention?”
Here’s an example of a great landing page on the Huckberry site. This is the page I land on after clicking on the Huckberry homepage link from their Facebook Page:
What makes this landing page great:
In true Huckberry style, they design each one of their landing pages with their story in mind.
“People are buying the Huckberry story. We need to be able to quickly articulate our differentiator in the marketplace, and landing pages are the best place to do that. They act as our sales pitch for people who may not have heard about us before.”
Most importantly, Huckberry designs landing pages based on where the traffic is coming from. For example, if they’re running a Instagram campaign around a particular product, they will A/B test copy and imagery to see which one performs best based on what they know about their Instagram audience.
In this case, they know that Instagram users are usually on the go or in a hurry. That’s why Huckberry is experimenting with the new “tag products” feature on Instagram - allowing potential customers to quickly shop for items they like.
People that click on “Shop Now” in this ad are greeted with a clean, mobile-friendly landing page with gorgeous product photos to seal the deal:
Micah explains, “Our landing pages’ success relies heavily on incredible imagery. We tell our story through beautiful photos and videos. That’s what people have come to know and love about the Huckberry brand.”
Takeaway: The importance of A/B testing with landing pages cannot be overstated. Imagery, copy, layout, format, color, and font all play a role in conversion rates. As Micah mentioned, always look for ways to summarize the “punchline” of your business to the average person who might not have heard of you before. And last, but not least, keep your landing pages minimal, clean, and captivating.
Understanding the customer journey from start to finish is a top priority for ecommerce businesses. The challenge for marketers is that no two customer journeys look the same.
“At Huckberry, we dig deep into our analytics to try and find the inflection points. For example, if someone hasn’t purchased a product after two months, they’re probably not going to buy from us again. So it’s our job to put together messaging to try and reactivate that customer.”
Breaking it down, Micah and his team perform a cohort analysis on various segments of customers -- where they are coming from, what pages they are visiting, and when they’re either purchasing or churning. With that data, his team then creates custom communication campaigns based on what part of the customer journey each cohort is in.
For example, I recently added a few items to my cart a few weeks before Cyber Monday (just to see if I received any custom communications from Huckberry). Sure enough, Cyber Monday rolls around and I receive an email from their team - several items in my cart make the emal:
One major challenge for ecommerce brands is when customers abandon their cart -- leaving on the final stage of the journey before purchase. To help combat cart abandonment, Huckberry grabs relevant information from their customers before they check out.
First, they offer multiple options to checkout with a sleek menu on the right:
After clicking “Checkout Now” I’m directed to a simple, clean, and minimal checkout page allowing me to make my purchase and get on with my day:
Even though ecommerce businesses can’t stop everyone from abandoning their cart, they can take a proactive approach to reduce it.
Utilizing retargeting ads (as shown in tip #5) to advertise to people who have added items to their cart, but did not make a purchase is a great way to lead people down the path to a sale. Collecting email addresses throughout the website or at the time of purchase is also another great tactic you can use.
Takeaway: Take time to understand every single part of your customer's journey. I recommend using a drawing board (or your favorite design program) to visually map out each touch point that your customers might experience with your business.
Once you have a clear picture of the journey, you can start to build out custom communications around each touch point. The more personal you make each part of the customer journey, the greater chance you have of increasing repeat purchases.
One of the proven ways ecommerce businesses grow into multimillion-dollar businesses is by increasing the number of repeat buyers. Repeat buyers typically purchase products more frequently, have a higher lifetime value (LTV), and are much more likely to recommend the business to a friend or family member.[*]
“At Huckberry,” Micah starts, “Our top priority is to build a relationship with folks over time through what we like to refer to as ‘real talk.’ Real talk is down-to-earth selling that feels very natural to the customer. It’s not invasive or intrusive at all. It’s real talk.”
Two days after signing up for Huckberry, I received this email from cofounder, Andy Forch:
No sales pitch. No CTA to “Buy Our Product.” No links leading back to their website.
It’s a personal email sent directly from the co-founder of Huckberry. Granted, this is an automated email, but it still feels very personal. I bet if I were to write back to Andy, I would get a response.
My favorite part of all, the email return address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Real talk!
“Our approach is this: We use content, specifically email and blog content, to keep people around even if they’ve never bought from us or are never going to buy from us. Chances are, those people will mention our newsletter to their friends. Or, they’ll recommend a product to a family member as a birthday or holiday gift. That focus on long-term customers is why I think we’ve been so successful over the years.
Another thing I noticed about Huckberry is that they don’t offer a lot of coupons or discounts. The only thing I see on their website is Free U.S. Shipping $98+, Free Returns, and Best Price Guaranteed:
When I asked Micah about the reasoning behind it, he said, “We typically don’t offer discounts and promotions. Of course, we’ll do the one-off sale and promotion, but it’s not the main driver of our business. Our view is that if you bring someone in through your story, you have a much higher chance of keeping them around for a long time.”
Takeaway: Building authentic relationships with your customers will lead to a higher percentage of repeat buyers. Even if they don’t buy from you now, providing them with valuable content will keep them in your circle of influence. Focusing on relationships, not short-term gains or promotions, is the best way to ensure high-quality customers that stay with your business for years.
At the heart of many great businesses is a community of loyal fans and followers. Fans and followers that tell everyone they know about your business.
Activating their community through grassroots marketing is a top priority for Huckberry. Grassroots starts from the ground up. Rather than trying to appeal to a mass group of people, you target your efforts to a small group of highly-engaged audience members with the goal that they’ll spread your message to a larger audience.
Micah explains, “word-of-mouth is crucial for our business growth. To spark word-of-mouth marketing, we have to be super in tune with the cultural aspects of our community. We strongly believe that if we give back to our audience, then good people will do good things for you.”
Huckberry has implemented a ton of amazing grassroots programs with the goal of increasing word-of-mouth. Each unique story is authentic and relatable to their target audience. It also provides Huckberry with endless social media and email content that people can easily share to their timeline or forward to a friend.
Most famous of which is their Ambassador Program (which we talked about above). But it doesn’t stop there. They’ve also introduced an Artist Spotlight:
Like this one incredible story of artist and illustrator Ty Williams.
The Artist Spotlights are “collaborations with some of their favorite artists to share their stories and create one-of-a-kind, limited edition prints, posters, and tees.” Collabs like this are what million dollar ecommerce brands like Supreme (a luxury streetwear brand) have built their whole business model around.
That’s not all they do, either. Huckberry also hosts in-person events, happy hours, fundraisers for charity, social campaigns for good, and lots more. All to connect one-on-one with their community.
Takeaway: At the end of the day, your customers and community are the most important thing to your business. That often gets lost as businesses attempt to churn out as many sales as they can on a path to become profitable. Investing in your community and investing in grassroots marketing will have a long-term impact on both loyal customers and word-of-mouth marketing. Find ways that your business can activate your community through one-on-one relationships.
When it comes to marketing and growing a profitable ecommerce business, the Huckberry team knows exactly what they’re doing.
They’ve mixed old-school grassroots marketing techniques with modern-day growth tactics to create a winning formula that has propelled Huckberry into a multimillion-dollar ecommerce business.
As Micah McKay would tell you, that growth all starts with a story. The Huckberry Story.
Without a compelling story, Huckberry might just be another brand in the sea of retailers. But it’s their story that keeps people coming back for more. It’s what entices people to open their emails each week, to get outdoors in Huckberry gear, and most of all, to tell their friends about an amazing new business that they’ve discovered.
What is Huckberry? It’s a thriving business that embodies the lives of their customers.
“Your favorite store, your grandpa’s favorite store and your favorite magazine all rolled into one.” - Huckberry Founders