The New Social Proof Levers for DTC Brands [With Neel Grover]

This is part four of our expert interview series to demystify the secrets of ecommerce and DNVB success. Read part one, part two, and part three.

Neel Grover, Founder and CEO of Indi.com

Consumers spent $517.36 billion online with US merchants last year, up 15% the year prior. Despite this rapid growth, there is one major challenge to ecommerce conquering the next frontier: the difficulty of replicating the in-store experience.

While it may seem like a far-off fantasy to fully replicate a physical experience online, leading brands are rapidly closing the gap in ways that many ecommerce vets don’t even know about.

Neel Grover, former CEO of Buy.com, Rakuten North America, and Bluefly, and current Founder and CEO of Indi.com, has built his career staying ahead of the curve in creating online shopping experiences. And today, he shares his ambitious vision for taking ecommerce into the next generation by:

  • Recreating the in-store experience online with samples and videos
  • Utilizing your passionate customers to rapidly increase conversion with new forms of user-generated content (UGC)
  • Taking lessons he learned at Buy.com to anticipate future trends

Modernizing commerce for a digital environment

Being a 17-year ecommerce vet, Neel has been fascinated with recreating the in-store experience online for some time now. This centers around the core benefits of brick and mortar, which are:

  1. You get to touch and feel the product.
  2. You can talk to an employee who’s knowledgeable on the product.
  3. Instant gratification: You get the product out of the trip, assuming you’re okay making the trip.

The toughest part of recreating an in-store experience in a digital environment is the touch and feel aspect.

Brands have been testing ways to make this more of a reality. You’ll see it with tougher-to-buy online items like high-end furniture, where they’ll send you swatches and different materials to sample.

Another area of empowerment for retailers is video. “Many people don’t realize that last Q4, Amazon defaulted to video reviews — and not just for technology products or products you’d normally watch a YouTube video to learn about,” Neel said. “This allows you to actually see real customers touch and interact with products.”

“Amazon is arguably the most data-driven company in the world. They wouldn’t keep something on their site for a year if it wasn’t increasing conversion for them.”

Neel Grover, Founder and CEO of Indi.com

Nordstrom took a different approach more recently and started having their associates create videos of the products. Neel pointed out the fashion-oriented approach, where employees are displaying, talking about, showing, illustrating, and sometimes wearing products.

Doubling down on UGC for social proof

The video review trend is more than anecdotal: some brands see users submitting 3x more video and photo reviews than traditional text reviews. And most importantly, the conversion is significantly higher on pages that have that content.

“It gives brands content ownership, so you can use that content on your website to drive even further conversions on your site,” Neel said. “Some companies have seen north of an 80% conversion rate from video on product pages. There’s nothing you can do other than maybe cut the price in half to drive that same increase in sales, and nothing to drive the same gross margin,” Neel added.

Yet for many brands, UGC is not top of mind as a needle mover. “You don’t normally think, ‘Gosh, I’m going to want to see someone else wearing that dress, or talking about how it fits and feels,’ but it’s the closest thing to getting that in-store experience,” Neel said.

And customers tend to want more video content, not less. Whether it’s an associate or customer creating the video, new customers will gain knowledge about a product that they don’t actually have in front of them, even using that visual in their purchasing decision.

Neel thinks other aspects of shopping will shift in the direction of more video: “We’ll see more live video chat, live experiences between sales associates and customers, and even on-demand discussions about products as more of a concierge type of service.”

“I’ve been a digitally native person in ecommerce for close to 17 years. Thinking about making everything as convenient as possible for the consumer is the way forward for retailers.”

Neel Grover, Founder and CEO of Indi.com

Monetizing brand loyalty

Whether your brand is one of the largest brick and mortars or smallest Shopify stores, your best influencers are your existing customers. They’ll authentically and organically talk about the products they love, and Neel believes they can be incentivized.

“Consumers can share items with their social followings and earn commission or store credit if any of their friends or followers purchase that or anything else,” Neel said. “They will be your best driver of additional new customers, especially lookalike customers,” he added.

“The concept of social proof is timeless, but influencer marketing is changing. People want to see real experiences, real knowledge, and real authentic products that real people love — not exclusively accounts with massive followings. If you can incentivize that and make content shoppable, it’s a win-win.”

Neel Grover, Founder and CEO of Indi.com

DTC companies often attract a more niche but loyal following. People associate with these brands, and a lot of the time there’s a referral effect. Many people want to find the next cool brand and be the first to help their friends discover something new.

Recognizing channels for what they are

Mary Meeker’s State of the Internet report last year stated, “DTC brands need to make sure that their customer acquisition cost is less than their lifetime value.” A lot of DTC brands are not necessarily focused on that. If you’re just going to rely on organic reach or even advertising on social, it’s going to get very expensive very quickly.

“Historically, you’d aim to move all your customers over to your social media sites, engage with your customers on social posts, and maintain a great symbiotic relationship,” Neel said. “Today, less than one out of 100 followers see your posts on social. These algorithm changes that Instagram and Facebook have implemented force brands to pay significantly more money to advertise and try to capture some of that reach.”

“Success isn’t just about building a great product; It’s building a great direct relationship with your customer, too. This can’t be done through a third-party marketplace or social site. If you’re going to build a really successful DTC brand, you need to own that customer relationship.”

Neel Grover, Founder and CEO of Indi.com

“Social can be a tool to drive more sales and engagement, just like Amazon can be a place to drive more sales,” Neel said. “Brands have to work harder at owning that customer relationship for a deeper, long-term relationship.”

Social is a great avenue, but you can’t rely on it. Influencers have a space in the world, but they’re not the end all. If a brand launches new products or drives new revenue streams, they won’t have to start all over again to drive customer acquisition costs if they are selling on their website and not just relying on Amazon.

It’s about creating a great experience with your customer, and having that happy customer drive awareness for you. It will take experimenting, and it should not be a one-size-fits-all solution.

Finding new opportunities in the most unlikely places

Finding ecommerce success will involve some ups and downs. Regardless of brand size, there are some lessons to be learned from others who have been there.

Years before the Rakuten acquisition, Neel took over Buy.com when it was not exactly on a path to a good exit. The company was losing $100 million a year and on the verge of hitting a wall. But there were some underlying assets that were amazing, including the technology.

“We shored up the business as quickly and capital-efficiently as we could. The initial model was losing money on every product sale, trying to make it up in advertising, and that just didn’t work,” Neel said. So they changed the model.

Buy.com built a marketplace, which was the third largest in the US at the time. They took their headcount way down and then built it back up. And Neel did a lot of things that were different, creative, and scrappy.

One of the most unusual moves? Neel partnered with some of his biggest competitors including eBay, even becoming their largest seller at one point. He partnered with Best Buy and built them a marketplace. It drove profit for his company and millions of dollars in sales for Best Buy.

By going to people that you normally wouldn’t think to, Neel was able to find ways to improve the situation. “We were competing with Amazon on every product, and they were a very formidable foe,” Neel said. “They are the best retailer in the world, but we were able to identify and offer some things that were different and forge partnerships,” Neel added.

Buy.com also put price comparisons on their site. “On every product page you would see not only what our price was, but you’d see Amazon’s price, Walmart’s price, Best Buy’s price, and every other major retailer’s price,” Neel said. “If you wanted to go check somewhere else, which you were going to do, we would just tell you up front.”

“That ended up driving higher conversions, because people started to really trust that we had the best price. Doing things that were out-of-the-box, different, and started with the customer helped to create a great customer experience.”

Neel Grover, Founder and CEO of Indi.com

Buy.com needed more visibility, distribution, and ways to make money. Going to some of their largest competitors — and some of the largest companies out there that were also competing with Amazon — Neel proposed that they work together.

He recalled that some of those conversations took more than two years. But that type of persistence, where you’re always thinking of how you can adapt, change, or partner, paid off.

Conclusion

Whether your customers are online or in-store, at the end of the day it’s just commerce. You have to meet customers where they are. And with an ever-changing acquisition landscape, you have to work hard to get people to your store.

Once shoppers get there, you have to maximize conversions on your site. Then you must utilize those converted customers who are already passionate about your brand to drive new customers. Getting creative will only help DTC brands thrive in 2020 and beyond.

Learn more from the rest of the series: