Having started in e-commerce during the industry’s early days, Brock Weatherup has a lot of perspective on what digital marketing strategies work to grow an online retail business, and what efforts fall flat.
Much of his experience is rooted in the pet care segment. He was CEO of PetFoodDirect, then took the helm at Pet360, which was acquired by PetSmart in 2014. After the acquisition, Brock became PetSmart’s Chief Digital Officer.
Today, Brock is bringing his experience to bear as the founder of Atai Ventures, an angel investment company, and co-founder of ICONYC, an accelerator based in New York.
Brock had more than a few e-commerce lessons to share when I interviewed him recently for our blog. We talked shop on marketing to pet owners, the #1 skill e-commerce pros need to have for success, and trends that will define the next five years of e-commerce.
Take a listen to the podcast here or peruse the transcript below (condensed for brevity).
0:53 What are you working on today and some of your high-level goals?
2:03 What is the most important lesson you’ve learned about growing an e-commerce company?
4:06 Any standout lessons for building a pet care e-commerce company specifically?
5:18 What are the top skills that an e-commerce marketer needs to have to be successful?
6:29 Do you think that top skill has changed over the years?
8:45 What is one mistake you’ve seen e-commerce marketers make more frequently than other mistakes?
10:40 What has been the biggest industry change you’ve experienced?
13:56 How do you think e-commerce marketers should prepare for the future of the industry?
Janelle Kozyra: To start, can you tell our listeners a little bit about what you’re working on today and some of your high-level goals?
Brock Weatherup: Mostly what I’m working on today is trying to find and touch great companies that are in the digital media and e-commerce space — whether that’s via investments, via angel investment, or whether that’s through consulting with some companies.
Or, as mentioned earlier, I’m involved with ICONYC, which is an Israeli-based tech accelerator. So we take companies out of Israel, help introduce them to the North American market, and help them with their go-to-market strategy.
And one last thing that I’m also doing: I have agreed to be the President of Philly Startup Leaders to really help accelerate the Philadelphia-based ecosystem for technology startups.
JK: Thinking back over the years that you’ve spent in e-commerce, what would you say is the most important lesson that you’ve learned about growing an e-commerce company?
BW: To me, there are two key things that are critically important. First and foremost is how do you make sure that the opportunity that you’re going after and the way that you go about executing is differentiated?
There’s this little company called Amazon that seems to do e-commerce well in every category. And the fact of the matter is, there are great companies that should be doing great things in different areas around retail and e-commerce, and if you can’t sit around the room and go, “Here’s why we are different than what’s out there today,” it’s going to be a very tough road to hoe.
For example, at Pet360, as we built that business from PetFoodDirect and until we sold it to PetSmart, we looked at: How was what we were executing every day going to allow us to win against two key measurements — Amazon and PetSmart?
In theory, both of them should have been squashing us every day with their capabilities and resources. So how do you maintain differentiation in what you’re trying to do?
The second piece is you have to be able to be phenomenal at executing the basics of e-commerce. How do you participate in comparison shopping engines? How do you optimize product pages? How do you look through all of the little details of checkout flow? How do you make sure that your delivery and communication with consumers is really tight?
If you can’t sit around the room and go, “Here’s why we are different than what’s out there today,” it’s going to be a very tough road to hoe.
That’s the price of entry to even be considered successful in e-commerce, and then that first part in differentiating is what makes it a great company.
JK: You mentioned your experience with Pet360 and PetSmart. Would you say that there is a standout lesson in terms of building a pet care e-commerce company specifically?
BW: Yes. It’s around emotion-based or where there’s high emotional involvement in the purchase process. Pets are part of the family. They are part of your life. It’s critically important that you tap into that sort of emotion.
I’ve been lucky enough to do that in the pet care industry, and prior to that, at Fathead and in the sports and entertainment category — which obviously is a very emotional one — and before that, the recreation space.
The consistent thing with all of those, which I think is hyper important in the pet category, is you have to recognize and validate the emotional relationship between the buyer, which is the human, and the actual consumer of the product, which is the pet. That emotional engagement is critically important to being successful in the pet category.
JK: When you think about top skills of an e-commerce marketer, what comes to mind? What are the top skills that an e-commerce marketer needs to have to be successful?
BW: A love of data. And the ability to look at wide arrays of data — high levels of details and figuring out which ones are the most important KPIs to pay attention to, how to track them, how to not get blinded by them, but also how do you make sure you react to them.
The beautiful thing about the digital space is that you have the ability to measure, track, and test pretty much everything. Don’t lose sight of that. You can get caught in a death spiral of trying too many things, so you still have to look at that.
Emotional engagement is critically important to being successful in the pet category.
But to be the most successful in e-commerce and digital anything today, you have to love data and look for the trends, look for the nuances, look for the opportunities that allow you to compete better, out-execute and outmaneuver any of your competitors, and engage your consumers better than anybody else.
JK: Do you think that top skill has changed over the years? Or do you think that love of data has always been the top skill?
BW: I think the love of data has always had to be there. But for modern e-commerce, call it the last 10 years, the complexity of data has become more difficult. You used to have very simple [KPIs] — your on-site metrics.
Now as you go much further upstream, you look at how you participate in all the varieties of channels on the front end on acquisition and all the data that’s available.
What is your inbound link? What is the landing page that they go to? How are you personalizing when they arrive? What sort of elements are you optimizing for that person? Because you know exactly what term they searched, or exactly what link they clicked on, or what exact piece of content they engaged with.
Then as you get further into digital marketing, and the importance of not just acquisition, but how you monetize or create a greater lifetime value of each of your customers, [you look at] retention KPIs.
Whether from a traditional bucket of CRM, whether it’s retargeting email, social involvement, how you execute digitally on an app versus your web engagement to tablet — those all have depth of data, and the complexity of the data is far greater than what it was.
JK: What do you think is one mistake that you’ve seen e-commerce marketers make more frequently perhaps than other mistakes?
BW: That by just putting it up for sale, people will buy it. I think there is a natural tendency to assume if you are a product company and you’re selling your products online, there’s a premise of, “Oh, jeez, I just put it up there, so people will buy it.”
Or if I’m an e-commerce company or I’m a retailer in that sort of scenario, and I’m selling other people’s products, that by having a good-looking website and highly functional mobile app or whatever else might be the purchase point of engagement — that having the functional capability there is enough.
The consumer is way too sophisticated today. They’re making decisions well before, in many cases, they arrive at a site where they can actually make a purchase — whether that is social influence, digital influence, content influence.
To be the most successful in e-commerce and digital anything today, you have to love data.
Price comparison is one click away for everybody. And the fact of the matter is, you have to find a way to — going back to one of the two critical things in e-commerce — differentiate.
Why is somebody choosing you? Why is this unique? Why am I not going to Walmart.com or Amazon or eBay or anywhere else? Why am I not choosing those and I’m actually ending up on my particular site or my particular app? That’s where it becomes critically important.
JK: Looking back over the time you’ve spent in e-commerce, what do you think has been the biggest industry change that you’ve experienced?
BW: I’ve been doing e-commerce since it basically started, so my change element is a little bit further. But I’ll take more of what’s happening more recently.
I’d say in the most recent history, the influence and involvement of the social dynamic of e-commerce and the importance of how your brand stays and engages with the community. Not a closed community in terms of what do you build on your site, but in the general community of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, everything else.
How are you perceived there? How are you involved there? That becomes a real critical element that has been a huge dynamic shift in more recent history.
And then I’d switch to what I believe are the two biggest functions, I’ll say, for all of retail. But it will center on the leverage of technology and digital that is going on right now and is going to radically transform retail and e-commerce in the next five years.
One is personalization. Individual consumers have individual engagement points with individual brands. [There’s] the importance of, “You should know me. You should know who I am. You should speak to me as an individual. You should have enough data to make that work.”
Price comparison is one click away for everybody.
Personalization, as a function, is going to define who the winners and losers are in retail and retail e-commerce. Obviously it was a core thing in Pet360, and obviously we weren’t necessarily at the front edge of that. But everyone’s investing in that. Delivering on that personal issue promise is radical change element #1 affecting retail and e-commerce.
And then the second thing to me, which is a little bit earlier — but I think is going to have a profound impact on digital e-commerce and the engagement points — is virtual reality. Not in the sense that I put on Oculus glasses and I do a virtual shopping tour. But the technology to be able to go shopping in an unbelievably differentiated way than what it is today.
How do I take a picture of myself and stick it on an apparel site, and then try clothes on virtually on the website in front of me? We’re not as far away from that as what I think people believe. If people aren’t thinking about that element of it, which is a hyper-personalization element of it, I think they’re going to miss out when you look back five years from now.
JK: So taking those two thoughts there, hyper-personalization and the virtual reality element, how do you think e-commerce marketers should prepare or what next steps should they be doing now to take advantage of that?
BW: I would go back to that core philosophy of: How are you differentiated? Not how are you different, but how are you differentiated? And that will lead you likely to: How do I personalize? How do I create individual engagement? How do I stay abreast of these newer technology functions?
Personalization, as a function, is going to define who the winners and losers are in retail and retail e-commerce.
[That’s] with the assumption that things like acquisition marketing and social brand marketing and email CRM and retargeting and comparison shopping engines are optimized and that you’re out-executing your competition, because you have to. That’s the price for entry.
As a digital marketer, it’s really, how do you think ahead and stay abreast of what those things are, so that when they do arrive, you don’t want to be the person who’s spending the money necessarily figuring it out, unless that’s your core business and that’s what you’re investing in.
You really want to be that second or third fast-follow. How do you end up following those technologies? And that means just staying involved. It’s having people who are paying attention to it. It’s having innovation as a core function inside your marketing team, inside your product team.
A lot of people pay lip service to that. But it’s important that you really make it part of your fundamental goals as a leader in your area of business or what you’re trying to do, because innovation is an everyday activity.
You might innovate on a micro scale or you might be innovating on a macro scale. An email campaign tomorrow might be innovative, but it also might be an entirely new way to engage with your customer, which is a six-month innovation. You’ve got to keep it on the list of priorities, or else it’ll get lost.
Interested in more from Brock? Check out some other of Brock’s lessons we posted on our blog.