NEW YORK, United States — For most of its first year in business, Entireworld relied on paid ads on Instagram to get its primary-coloured wardrobe essentials in front of potential customers.
But for the brand’s next big marketing push, founder Scott Sternberg is taking a different approach. Where previously all of Entireworld’s marketing budget went toward Instagram, the new campaign will involve placing ads featuring dancers dressed in monochrome apparel across Snapchat, Youtube, Reddit, Google and other channels.
For fledgling fashion brands, the advertising ecosystem is expansive and confusing, a marketplace where costs per click shift constantly, as do the rules governing sponsored content. In a saturated market, companies must constantly tinker with where they allocate their marketing budgets, and what message they send to customers, or risk losing out for consumers’ limited attention spans.
“It’s the wild, wild west,” said Sternberg, whose previous brand, Band of Outsiders, was mainly marketed offline and sold via department stores and other retailers. “It’s unlike anything I’ve experienced, certainly having a traditional wholesale brand, and it seems to change month to month.”
As the golden age of Instagram begins to fade, brands are tasked with exploring new channels for engagement and customer acquisition. Betting on the wrong social platform is an increasingly expensive mistake; the median cost per thousand impressions (CPM) on Instagram continually fluctuates — from $5.24 in the fourth-quarter of 2018 to $7 in the third quarter of 2019 — and it can be difficult for brands to keep up.
Many of the first wave of direct-to-consumer brands that benefited most from Instagram advertising, from Warby Parker to Glossier, have diversified into broadcast television, podcasts and beyond. In their wake, thousands of start-ups branded with Millennial colourways and bold sans serif fonts are struggling to update the DTC marketing formula.
BoF spoke with brands, media buying agencies and experts to navigate the new digital media landscape.
Move Past Immediate Conversion
Instagram ads offer a sense of instant gratification — users see a post, swipe up and buy a product. The platform offers easily measured conversions and performance data that can inform the development of future products. Brands can easily remove and edit ads as they hone their pitch.
That can be a tempting proposition for a new brand with a small advertising budget, but betting everything on Instagram is not always an effective long-term strategy.
As a brand’s marketing capacity grows, diversifying channels is key.
Facebook and Instagram are like this drug that courses through your veins and you just need to get off of it at some point.
“Facebook and Instagram are like this drug that courses through your veins and you just need to get off of it at some point,” said Melanie Travis, founder and chief executive of the swimsuit company Andie Swim.
Her brand launched in April 2017 and, like many new labels, started advertising solely through Instagram and Facebook. Now, the majority of Travis’ marketing budget goes toward other channels, including podcasts, billboards and direct mail.
It can be harder to track the returns from those offline advertising methods, but they can help build brand awareness and develop customer loyalty in ways that instant-converting social media ads can’t.
“You can get stuck in a very vicious conversion cycle,” said Ali Weiss, Glossier’s senior vice president of marketing. “It’s really important to maintain a brand that wants to resonate beyond pure conversion.”
Other Digital Channels
Other social platforms are working to match Instagram’s ease of use for DTC brands. Pinterest is working to improve both conversion rates and the quality of the metrics it shows to advertisers, Chief Executive Ben Silberman said in a recent earnings call. Snapchat is simplifying its ad system, adding tools to help small businesses optimise their reach through Shopify integrations and goal-based bidding.
But what works on Instagram may not work on other platforms, and brands have to tailor their approach to each channel and use a trial and error approach.
For Andie Swim, user-generated content worked well on Instagram and Facebook but not on Pinterest, where users responded better to more traditional ads.
“Pinterest was tough at first but it’s getting better for us,” Travis said.
In some cases, companies have moved back to Snapchat or started to explore Tiktok as a way of lowering cost per acquisition (CPA) — a guiding light for brands — and connect with Gen Z consumers. In an attempt to appeal to DTC companies, Snapchat recently began offering the ability to build and edit ads instantly, allowing users to upload photos of product inventory and set a template generated by the platform.
Google advertising is usually the next step for brands after Instagram and Facebook, however many brands are starting to move to Amazon search as more consumers go directly to the marketplace to find products.
EMarketer found that search is the “fastest-growing ad format for retail advertisers,” with a projected increase of 22.5 percent to $13.1 billion this year. The research firm predicts Amazon will claim 16 percent of the search advertising market in 2021, from 13 percent today.
Newsletters are another alternative to social media, offering a direct route into potential customers’ inboxes. Matt Scanlan, chief executive of Thakoon and the cashmere brand Naadam said he considers The Skimm, a subscription-only newsletter aimed at Millenial women, and Morning Brew newsletters as well as podcasts and search for his advertising mix, alongside Instagram and Facebook.
Travis also cited The Skimm as providing a big boost in awareness for Andie Swim.
Product vs Brand Advertising
Many direct-to-consumer brands are built around a single “hero” product — Bombas’ socks or Untuckit’s button-down shirts, to cite two examples. That’s influenced the look of online advertising, said Harry Bernstein, chief creative officer of the Havas Group, an advertising company.
Bernstein said even many large brands that sell a wide range of merchandise are mimicking the single-product formula.
“Modern brand advertising now is product advertising and that is because of DTC brands,” he said.
The pendulum may be swinging back, however. Entireworld and Glossier emphasise their brands rather than standout products in recent ads. They’re trying to reach younger customers with messages centred on values and strong aesthetics.
Glossier’s “Feeling Like Glossier” campaign features models alongside store employees, Glossier fans and friends of the brand discussing what beauty means to them. The ads appear on broadcast TV, as well as owned channels and platforms like Youtube and Snapchat, where message-driven campaigns that require greater attention from viewers perform better.
“Being able to center storytelling around our values and the voices of our community is what drives our mix,” Weiss said.
Platforms like Snapchat are also working to accommodate this shift, a recent earnings report showed it is extending the maximum duration of ads so brands can “tell more detailed brand stories.”
Return on investment is calculated differently for campaigns like Glossier’s, as part of the equation includes organic traffic from users sharing ads that they enjoyed.
Entireworld’s videos featuring dancers dressed in the brand’s sweats doing a variety of stretches and synchronised movements is meant to provoke engagement and brand awareness, Sternberg said. He added that he isn’t expecting large numbers of sales directly from the campaign, however.
“It’s not necessarily selling a sweatsuit, but it’s driving people to the site,” Sternberg said.
The Nue Co., a wellness company specialising in supplements, skincare and fragrance, launched its first non-product focused ad campaign in October. Called “How Are You Really,” the campaign involved a partnership with mental health organisations and was spread via billboards, influencers, social media and other methods.
“It was the most successful campaign we’ve ever done,” said founder Jules Miller. Organic traffic to the brand’s social media profiles increased by 300 percent, with a 20 percent increase in sales for the brand’s stress-focused fragrance.
Test on Digital to Go Traditional
Catalogues and other mailings are effective for large brands hoping to retarget customers and widen their reach. But they can be expensive, and for smaller brands, it makes sense to test messaging online first.
For Andie Swim, the black “Mykonos” suit performed particularly well on social media and had the highest conversion rate on its product detail page. So Travis made sure it was featured heavily in the brand’s direct mail campaign. She said the cost per acquired customer is the lowest for direct mail across among all her advertising channels.
Finding the right mix of advertising also means adapting constantly to consumer trends and new channels. “I can’t go to dinner or a breakfast or a panel or any type of networking event without all the entrepreneurs in the room saying, ‘What’s the next channel,” said Travis.