“We can be deceived into thinking the present state will last forever,” says Taylor Holiday, the Managing Partner of Common Thread Collective, an agency built around helping your ecommerce business grow. As “pioneers of the moment,” it’s too easy to lean on one high performing channel for business growth. But if that one channel were to disappear—would your business survive?
What if you could create a marketing strategy that breeds resilience and helps you grow stronger in the midst of chaos?
This is what Taylor calls an “antifragile” approach to marketing: rather than resisting change or becoming brittle, the businesses built on more solid foundations will grow when competitors don’t.
As you develop your own marketing strategy, you might feel lost in a sea of best practices and suggested tactics. Our goal is to simplify this huge topic into a digestible guide full of insights from top marketing experts. We’ll include only what you need to know—instead of a list of tactics to try.
Meet the experts
Ezra Firestone, founder of Smart Marketer and co-founder and CEO of BOOM! by Cindy Joseph. Ezra’s expertise in marketing stems from his own tried and true digital marketing experience, which informs the courses taught at his company, Smart Marketer.
Ben Zettler, Shopify Expert and Shopify Plus Partner. Ben has helped more than 250 businesses grow and thrive with his strategic expertise.
Taylor Holiday, Managing Partner of Common Thread Collective. Taylor introduced the idea of antifragile ecommerce and supports entrepreneurs in reaching their dreams through his work at Common Thread Collective.
Why do you need a marketing strategy?
A marketing strategy is the overarching approach a business uses to attract customers. Within a marketing strategy, businesses will use different tactics—like organic and paid marketing—across channels like email, social, or SMS.
Without a marketing strategy, businesses can fall into a situation where they try many different tactics that don’t work together. This type of haphazard approach can leave you spending a ton of money and time on things that aren’t bringing in new customers.
A clear, cohesive marketing strategy addresses how you’ll plug the holes, what you’ll do when things don’t work, and how you’ll adapt.
What’s the difference between a marketing strategy and a marketing funnel?
A marketing funnel acts as a roadmap of the customer journey. It outlines the different stages people go through on the road to becoming a first-time and repeat customer. It visually represents your approach and outlines the different activities and tactics that you’ll use at each stage. If a marketing funnel is what people do at each stage of the buying journey, then a marketing strategy is how people move from one step in the funnel to the next.
Laying out your customer journey in the form of a marketing funnel can encourage more meaningful growth, help develop better customer relationships, and help you better understand your purchase cycle. A powerful marketing strategy works hand in hand with a clearly outlined marketing funnel—one that includes your approach to acquisition and awareness, consideration, conversion, and loyalty.
Defining the marketing funnel
- Acquisition and awareness: The broadest part of the marketing funnel contains anyone who hears about your product and business. These are new people who don’t know much about you yet.
- Consideration: The people in this part of the funnel are seriously considering making a purchase from you. They are in the information-gathering phase and might seek opinions from friends, others on social media, or directly from your website.
- Conversion: The people in this bucket are ready to make or have made a purchase.
- Loyalty: How do you get customers to come back around? The loyalty part of the funnel contains those you’re trying to sell to again.
How to build a marketing strategy that works
Marketing a small business can be challenging, especially with the vast amount of routes you can take.
That’s why we’ve broken things down into two distinct phases: calibrate and run. During the calibration phase, you’ll establish key components like your website, your “why,” product-market fit, target audience, and your audience’s needs. During the run phase, you’ll start building relationships, gaining trust, and pulling organic and paid levers to make sales and grow your business.
Would you buy something from your website? If you cannot answer that question with a resounding yes, then you’ve got a problem.
Calibrate: Steps 1 – 3
Before you turn on the heat, the exercises in the calibrate phase ensure that you’re presenting your business in a way that is compelling to prospective customers.
1. Build a stellar website
“The question that I ask before even thinking about email or advertising or social media is, ‘Would you buy something from your website?’” says Shopify Expert Ben Zettler. “If you cannot answer that question with a resounding yes, then you’ve got a problem.”
Building a great website is the first step in finding a marketing strategy that works. Website quality, user experience, checkout functionality, product information, design, and product photos—it all contributes to how someone feels about your brand, and the trust they put in you as a company.
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2. Define your product-market fit
Once someone lands on your website, how clearly do you communicate the problem that your product solves? Ben recommends thinking through the following questions:
- What is the “why?” of the products you sell?
- What problem does your product solve? Are you filling a gap in a market, making something better than your competitors, or solving a critical need that hasn’t been met?
- Why should somebody buy from you over a competitor? What makes your products better?
This is the very beginning of establishing a product-market fit for your business. While the best way to prove your product-market fit is to make actual sales, walking through this process will help you establish the messaging you’ll use on your website. This is the copy that will take mainstage on your homepage, product pages, and landing pages.
If you understand who this group of people is and what set of experiences they have, you can relate to them through shared experiences.
For example, Equator Coffees found product-market fit by crafting amazing coffee and by doing great things for the global coffee community. Equator has been a certified B Corporation since 2011, making it the first coffee roaster in California with the certification. All of this information is clearly communicated on its website, from its homepage to an entire page dedicated to impact.
By creating high-quality roasts, fostering a great culture at its cafés, and stepping up to bring change to the coffee industry, Equator found its product-market fit and answers the seminal question, “Why buy coffee from you?”
3. Consider your audience
You can have the best product photography and website design, compelling copy, and incredible products, but if you’re marketing to the wrong audience—or worse, to everyone—you risk failing to grow.
“If you understand who this group of people is and what set of experiences they have,” says marketing expert Ezra Firestone, “you can relate to them through shared experiences.”
So, who is your target audience? You can establish this by doing both qualitative and quantitative research.
Do qualitative research to uncover your target audience:
- Do a competitive analysis. Do a deep dive into the target audience of your competitors. What social media channels are they most active on? What group is their brand voice sure to resonate with most? How do they talk about their products?
- Conduct research interviews. As you parse through your competitive analysis, reach out to a group of people who either follow or engage with your competitor on social media and ask them to do an interview with you. Chat about why they made that purchase, if it satisfied what they were looking for, and what would improve the product.
- Run surveys. Using a tool like Survey Monkey, ask questions about what people are interested in, their hobbies, where they live, how much money they make, and what they do for a living. You can also partner with a company like Forrester, which can conduct broader industry research on your behalf.
- Meet people IRL and have conversations. Sometimes, a table at your local farmers market or a booth at a street fair is the best way to get to know your audience. This allows you to have casual conversations with the people who visit your table, where you can ask them what they’re looking for if they do and don’t make a purchase from you.
Do quantitative research to understand your target audience:
- Use a tool like Google Analytics to grab demographic data. Google Analytics can give you further insights into the demographic data of your target audience.
- Review purchase information. Once you get a few sales, take a look at how much customers spend, where they’re buying from, and what they buy.
- Conduct industry research. Review research reports from sites like Neilsen, Forrester, or Pew Research on consumer behavior and trends. You can also check out Google Trends, which shows reports of the rise and fall of the popularity of different items since 2004.
Now that you have a deeper understanding of who your target audience is, it’s time to uncover where they hang out online.
You wouldn’t cast a line into a pond that’s empty of fish. Similarly, you don’t want to invest time and resources into building a TikTok following when your target audience exists in Facebook groups.
“In the absence of being able to leverage paid media,” says Taylor, “you need to go fish in the ponds where your customer already exists and you’ve got to go make yourself a part of those communities and build relationships there.” We’ll dive deeper into this idea in the second phase below.
Develop your marketing content to match audience needs
As you build out your actual pieces of marketing content, Ezra recommends approaching it with a different perspective. Rather than focusing on simply making sales, think about who you’re talking to, why you’re talking to them, and what you have to say to them that’s meaningful.
Your marketing assets (think social media posts, emails, paid ads, blog posts, YouTube content, etc.) should be informed by the narrative of who these people are, what’s valuable to them, and how you’re helping to solve one of their problems, Ezra says.
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Run: Steps 4 – 5
You’ve done the foundational work. Now, it’s time to build out your acquisition (how you’ll get new customers to your shop) and retention (how you’ll keep customers coming back) strategies.
4. Acquire new customers with an antifragile mindset
Taylor Holiday introduced the idea of antifragile ecommerce in a deep dive article on the topic. The idea is that you build your business in ways that make it grow stronger in the face of chaos—you’ll win more market share if you can succeed while others topple due to lack of a solid foundation.
Grow your organic traffic before spending money on paid ads
The amount of money you put into paid advertising really depends on the makeup of your business. But Taylor says that you’re better off starting with an organic, rather than a paid, approach. If you kick off with a paid approach, he says, you’ll spend money to produce non-predictable outcomes.
“To take your precious few dollars and shake the dice and roll them into that system is potentially a really, really difficult way to grow,” says Taylor.
Instead, for your first few hundred sales, direct message as many people as you can on social media channels and introduce your product to them. Find Facebook communities, introduce yourself, and share your product. Email your friends and family.
You can’t fast forward trust. You can’t fast forward authenticity.
“The good work of your first hundred to a thousand customers has to come from that,” says Taylor. “And it’ll build a foundation, too, which will actually enable you to effectively use paid media.”
Amy Robertson, co-founder of Friends of Friends Hat Co., feels similarly. “Start small and lean on growing organically. Patience is key,” she says.
This tactic works in practice: many brands have found success in starting and growing organically before turning to paid media. In a recent installment of his email newsletter, Nik Sharma shared that brands like Haus, Kettle and Fire, and Poo~Pourri started with an organic strategy before pivoting to paid.
“Haus is a great example. For the first year-ish of the company’s existence, they didn’t spend a dollar on paid marketing. They spent all their efforts on building FOMO (so you want to try it out), and then creating a world-class experience, driven by the product (so that you post or talk about it), which creates a flywheel that has a ripple effect going out from each customer,” he wrote.
Remember that once you do start spending money on paid advertising, it doesn’t mean that you should stop your organic efforts. Paid marketing and organic, owned marketing go hand and hand, chicken-and-egg style, says Ben. You need paid marketing to get people to your site, but once people are there, you need to capture their information to re-engage with them.
“If it works, paid media is so effective. The key is to understand what the tool is and when it serves you,” says Taylor. It’s a tool in your belt, but it’s never meant to replace the actual relationship-building that you need to do in order to spread organically. “You can’t fast forward trust. You can’t fast forward authenticity,” he says.
? Key takeaway: Build an organic strategy before adding paid ads into the mix.
Find online communities and build relationships with them
You might be wondering what marketing channels you should build your strategy on. The answer is that it all depends on your business model, the products you sell, and your target audience. Email marketing is a great always-on channel for any business. But in the early days, while you’re trying to make your first few sales, you likely won’t have many emails yet.
Through the audience research that you did during the calibrate phase, you should have a strong idea of the channels your target audience hangs out on. Are they active in Facebook groups, Slack communities, blogs, TikTok, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, Reddit?
Now, it’s time to choose your marketing channels based on where your customers are, and build hype around your products and trust in your business organically.
“The two biggest influences on purchase decisions are price and a recommendation from somebody we trust,” says Taylor, who also co-founded silicone wedding ring business QALO.
The QALO team first did audience research by going to meet the people who lived a lifestyle where wearing a silicone ring made sense. They spoke with firefighters and police officers and visited Crossfit gyms. Their first partnership came out of meeting one woman in person who ran a blog called Firefighter Wives, an aggregated community of wives of firefighters who hung out together.
Because the team built trust with her, she drove referral traffic to the QALO website by writing about the business on her blog. This is the type of community and relationship building that you need to do early on.
“It’s your friends, it’s the people that you’ve followed for a long time that have a voice that you’ve seen consistently deliver valuable information to you,” says Taylor. “That’s who you want to hear from. And so it goes back to the firefighter wife for us. She has a network of women who really trust her.”
? Key takeaway: Find niche communities, build trust, and get in on the conversation.
Create marketing content that adds value
As you have these on-the-ground conversations, it’s time to start developing your marketing content. These are assets, like emails, social media posts, YouTube videos, etc., that your prospective customers will engage with online.
Ben suggests thinking about how these individual pieces of content add value to someone’s day. That might be entertainment, information, or something that makes them smile.
”What’s the thing that’s going to create conversation?” asks Ben. “The thing that creates conversation is what, in every social algorithm, is going to get more people to see your content.”
It sounds simple, but reframing the way you think about and create content will help it be more compelling for your audience over time.
For example, San Francisco–based watercolor store Case for Making uses Instagram to share new product announcements, recent watercolor creations, and updates on its watercolor classes.
The team just launched a new Instagram Live lunch club on Thursdays, where they share behind-the-scenes sneak peeks and process demos, or simply sit with folks to chat and paint something new.
? Brainstorm: What kind of content do you love to see online? What do you engage with? What gets your attention? What do you share with friends? What kind of content makes sense for your target audience?
5. Boost retention
Retaining customers is much cheaper, and significantly easier, than acquiring new ones. Aside from building trust through community outreach and word of mouth, building long-term trust with non-customers and customers alike is what will keep them coming back.
Craft enticing email marketing campaigns
Before you can build expert email campaigns and write catchy subject lines, you need to build up your email list. Ben recommends giving people an incentive to join your email and SMS lists, whether that’s a discount or something else that really adds value to your customers. Think about things like free shipping, a percent discount, buy one get one, early access to sales, exclusive access to products, or free gift with purchase.
Now, once you’ve got their information and then once they’ve made their first purchase, Ben recommends putting together a post-purchase email flow. This is your opportunity to provide a coupon code for a future purchase, ask for feedback and reviews, and acquire user-generated content.
For example, Atlas Pet Company sends an email a couple days after a purchase gets delivered. Leave a review and a photo of your pup wearing their new harness, collar, or leash and get $10 off your next order.
Similarly, Bossy Cosmetics shares a code for free shipping on your next order. But the brand also sends a follow-up email asking customers to share photos in their new makeup across social media. User-generated content is invaluable as you set out to acquire new customers because it builds trust and lets people see what your products look like IRL.
If you sell products that people might buy only once, like a high-end leather wallet or air purifier, your follow-up email campaigns are going to look very different. Instead of sharing an offer, Ben suggests providing further education around the products they just purchased.
Also effective, he says, is sending a steady stream of content over time. The goal of your post-purchase emails is to convince customers to come back to you for educational information about your items. For the leather wallet, this might be information on extending the longevity of the item. For the air purifier, it might include further education on the pollutants in our air, what causes them, and what you can do to help.
Create a loyalty program
There’s a local grocery store with a cult following in a little surf town outside of San Diego. It’s grown a reputation for its burgundy tri-tip, a mouth-watering hunk of meat locals love to serve up on tacos or sliders on warm San Diego days. It’s a spot folks frequent for lunch, since its prepared food section rivals even the biggest, best Whole Foods.
The market implemented a loyalty program where frequent shoppers can earn cash toward their groceries by scanning in every time they shop.
This is how it works:
- Spend $1–$300 a month and earn 1% of total purchases
- Spend $301–$500 a month and earn 2% of total purchases
- Spend $501+ a month and earn 3% of total purchases
The market mails reward checks twice per year, so long as the amount is over $10. Customers make purchases and earn rewards—there’s an incentive (other than the delicious wares) to return.
Similarly, Girlfriend Collective, an athleisure wear brand that sells sustainable clothing, has a loyalty program based on customer lifetime value. The more a customer spends in total at the shop, the more perks they earn, like free shipping, early access to product drops, and free returns.
These programs gamify commerce and offer incentives to bring customers back. The amount of money you’ll lose on shipping, for example, pays off in spades when an existing customer makes another purchase. Why? Because you didn’t have to spend money acquiring someone new.
?Pro tip: Drew Sanocki’s The Three Multiplier Framework is a great course on the Shopify Learn platform for learning about retention. Drew approaches winning customers back with tips for raising purchase frequency (F), increasing customers’ average order value (AOV), and increasing the total number of customers coming to your store (C).
Build a marketing strategy founded on resilience
Marketing in ecommerce is extremely hard. It’s not always a linear journey, and it takes trial and error to get it right. If you’re struggling to find marketing that works for your business, go back to the beginning. Return to those first couple of people who invested in your business and have another conversation with them. What do they want to see from you in the future? What got them excited about your brand in the first place? Their insight can help you restructure your marketing efforts in a way that better serves your audience.
If it feels like things are moving slowly, that’s OK. An antifragile approach to ecommerce marketing is meant to take a while. The longer you spend building your foundation, the better prepared your brand is to grow and thrive for the long term.