As a brand, it can be challenging to navigate the tumultuous waters of internet commentary. Despite your best efforts to project positivity, you may still encounter some negativity online—especially if you're in a controversial industry.
So, what's the best way to tackle these situations in public online spaces?
On this episode of Shopify Masters, we hear from Lindsay Rubin, the Vice President of V-dog—healthy, vegan food and treats for dogs—about managing controversy and dealing with online trolls.
At some point, you just let it go. You’ve provided the information, come in with kindness and a positive perspective. And that’s important for us because "Vegan" is such a heavy word—we want to position it in the most kind, compassionate, positive way possible.
Tune in to learn
- How to make sure customers know your core values
- How to handle disagreements with trolls on social media
- How to create blog posts that customers actually want
- Store: V-Dog
- Social Profiles: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
- Recommendations: Asana, Privy (Shopify app), Bold Recurring Orders (Shopify app), Conversio (Shopify app)
Felix: Today we’re joined by Lindsay Rubin from V-dog. V-dog creates healthy Vegan food and treats for dogs. And was started in 2005 and based out of San Francisco, California. Welcome, Lindsay.
Lindsay: Hello. Thank you for having me.
Felix: Yeah, excited to have you on. So you were the very first employee at the company, which just started again in 2005. So I’d say, the company was pretty early in the game and was doing it before Vegan dog food was cool. Where did the inspiration come from?
Lindsay: Yeah. So our company was started back in 2005 by our founder, Dave. And basically, he and his wife, Linda, didn’t find anything on the market that they felt really excited about feeding their two rescue pit bulls, Candy and Sparky. So Dave decided to start V-dog here in the States in 2005, really with a goal of providing that high-quality plant-based food that’s complete and balanced and is a product that dogs really loved the taste of as well.
Felix: No. Awesome. So how soon after the company got started before you joined?
Lindsay: The company was around for, I would say, about eight or so years before I joined. And at that time it was really Dave handling mostly everything. That was kind of the type of guy he was. He was really just bootstrapping it, making everything work, bringing in people here and there to make certain parts of the business work. But he was really the type of guy that likes to keep everything under his umbrella and push forward doing most things himself. So when I came on, I really just started at kind of a lower level helping him with various organizational tasks and day-to-day business stuff. And my personal role kind of grew from there. But what it really took was for me to come on and for some other people that come on for us to really see our potential and see, “Okay, we can use this person here and my help can go into these areas and it could really contribute significantly to our growth into our organization.”
Felix: Got it. What would you say is your role today? What is your responsibilities at the company?
Lindsay: Sure. So I am currently the vice president and what I do mostly day-to-day is help us create the right partnerships, whether that’s in the Vegan community or in the pet space. And I helped basically direct our strategy to ensure that we’re on kind of the best path with all of our marketing and our PR, and basically how we present ourselves to the world and as well as which paths we take for our best growth.
Felix: Got it. Now when you were coming on board, obviously, I think you grew into these skills. You grew the skill is to take on this role, what were some of the most vital skills that you had to learn that you would say had the most impact on the success of the business?
Lindsay: I would say organization. I always considered myself a really organized person and I think what helped is being really list driven. I don’t know if that works for everyone, but for me I really liked to operate on a list basis. And just really honing that in and staying on track with those things became really, really beneficial because in a small business there’s always a million things kind of flying around and everyone wears a lot of hats. So staying on track with a project and really finishing it through to the end and getting to the right people and making things … kind of see them through to the end and complete them, I would say that has been the biggest learning process for me and even if you consider yourself good at something, I think there’s always room for improvement too. So I’ve definitely, I’d like to say, I’ve improved on that as well as some other other things.
Felix: Are there any kind of models or apps that you use for the organization. I know there’s so many out there. Is there any particular methodology that you subscribe to?
Lindsay: Yeah, we use Asana and I really love it. We only started using it a couple of years ago. So it’s a kind of project management tool. It’s free and we use it. We have full-time employees as well as contracted workers. And where it really works well for us is those contracted roles, whether it’s someone coming in and graphic design or photography or web development. It’s been really huge because you can kind of create a project like we just did a website update and it helped out so immensely to have those tasks just kind of all lined up and you can check them off. You can go back and forth, you can bring other team members in. So yeah, Asana has been really helpful for us.
Felix: One thing you mentioned was about the key to knocking down these lists is through prioritization. How do you decide what you should give priority?
Lindsay: I would say I always give priority to the most time sensitive things, but in a small business, of course, there’s always this kind of quick projects as well as the big picture. So what I like to do is kind of dedicate parts of my schedule to getting knocking out kind of emails and quick things usually at the start of the day and then I focus throughout the rest of the day or I pick certain days of the week to focus on kind of bigger picture product projects, whether it’s a product launch that we’re trying to get through this year, that’s kind of more of a long standing project versus, “Okay, I have to answer these 10 emails.” So I kind of structure my day in that way as far as knocking certain things out and then taking the big picture projects and putting them into my schedule at various points.
Felix: So when you have a big goal, can you describe how you approach breaking it down so that it is actionable on a daily basis or even if you’ve got an example of a big goal that you guys are working or recently accomplished, how did you break it down so that it’s not … it’s kind of behemoth that stares at you in the face? Was that just something that you can’t tackle every single day or make progress towards?
Lindsay: Yeah, sure. And these projects can get overwhelming, but with the organization it can really help check things off. So what I do, I’m really big into Google drive and I use Google docs just kind of as my sketch pad and my notepad. So what I do a lot of in there is I make a document, say it’s last year, we released a new flavor of our organic label biscuit. It was blueberry flavor. So for that, luckily we kind of had the blueprint. We had a previous peanut butter flavor and it’s a similar product. So we were able to kind of follow in that sort of footprint of the previous product.
But what I like to do there is just take notes. I write in dates. I use highlights for certain colors and I kind of coordinate next steps when I have certain calls with certain people and I kind of just do a general outline, usually in a sort of Google doc. It’s kind of my way of having a notepad. And maybe that’s not something that is ideally … maybe using asana for a personal task like that would also work well, but I’ve just found that that kind of sketching it out in a document like that and organizing it there really helps for me.
Felix: Was there something there you had to say or that the company had to say no to that seemed like a great opportunity, but it had no room, you guys are spread too thin, or you would be spread too thin if you say yes to it? Can you think of it as an opportunity like this where you guys just had to say no to it even though it was something that was, maybe it could have been super attractive for the company?
Lindsay: Oh yeah, for sure. I mean we’re a family business, so our budgets tend to match that granted we’ve been growing a ton and we’ve seen most of our biggest growth over the last year, three or four years. But being that same type of business, we don’t have exterior funding so we have to make budgetary decisions really wisely and we’ve definitely had to turn down things that we know would be really successful, whether it’s working with a certain advertising company or allocating tens of thousands of dollars to a certain video creation that we know would be successful, but it just isn’t working now. And the way that I kind of think on that is I put it away in a folder and I understand that timing is important and you have to stick to various budgets, especially as a small business, but kind of file it away and keep it on track or in a folder there for the future if you know it was something that would likely be successful, but it’s just might not work right now.
Felix: Right. I like to say rather than say, rather than saying no, I rather say or I’d like to say not yet. It’s not time or not the right time for it yet, but you don’t have to just say no and then feel like you’re shutting this off forever. Most things are never once in a lifetime opportunity. So I think that’s important for people that are … especially when you are just trying to get started for the first time you kind of just [inaudible] opportunity, for opportunity. And it’s so important just to stay focused and not be kind of lured to the next thing. Which leads to my next question, which is I think you mentioned about how important it is to finish. So you say a little more about this, how do you become more of a finisher? How do you make sure that the … either internally or externally, where do you see … ambitious people fall short of finishing. Why does that happen?
Lindsay: Sure. So do you mean with kind of day-to-day projects?
Felix: Sure. Yeah.
Lindsay: Or bigger picture projects?
Felix: Yeah, I guess. I think if someone has a big goal in mind or they have a big project that they’re working towards and they work on it, work on it, and work on it at some point they abandon it to go somewhere else. Why do you think that that happens and what are the things that you do or you do as a company to finish the work that you start?
Lindsay: I think our biggest component, of course, we’re a Vegan company and we make it Vegan products. So I feel so fortunate to be able to work in a space as a Vegan individual as well. And I wonder if sometimes your project isn’t fully aligned with what you’re most passionate about. That could possibly be a reason why it falls off. I think there are probably tons and tons of reasons, but with us, we’re so passionate about finishing things and getting projects done and bringing new products to market because to us it means helping more dogs and saving more [inaudible] animals. So it’s really this full circle of authenticity. Everyone that works here with us … we’re a small team, but everyone is so passionate and we’re also invested in the brand and the product and we feed it to our own dogs and it’s just this kind of full circle atmosphere and everyone works together really, really well.
So I think that’s a really big part of it, at least from our perspective, is the passion component and really choosing an avenue that is going to be successful, but also related to a personal passion. I think that that really, really helps.
Felix: So you mentioned that or you said that with increased transparency of social media and influencer marketing, consumers, especially Vegan consumers want to know that what they’re supporting is real and as a Vegan known to operate a family business, you guys stay completely true to the missions. Being authentic is what sets you apart. What do you do on a daily basis to make sure that your customers know your core values and that you’re standing by them?
Lindsay: Yeah, I think that the biggest tool for that for us right now is Instagram. We communicate so closely and so directly with all of our followers and our customers and we have our social media manager on there just always responding. And she’s a real person. I’m a real person. I’m on there sometimes commenting and writing back to people. And I think that that’s kind of a surprise. You don’t expect someone maybe kind of as a main stay of the company to be responding to you on Instagram, but we love it. We love talking with people, we love helping, and it’s such a controversial kind of polarizing topic that we kind of do an all hands on deck approach where we allocate a portion of our time to just really being there for the customers.
And, in addition to that, on our website, we have our about us page and we have various parts where you can learn about what we do. And I think a big part of it too, being in the Vegan community, is it ends up being somewhat of a small world. So, I don’t want to say everyone knows each other, but we’ve been in the Vegan community for more than 13 years now. So it’s in a way that kind of creating a positive reputation around what you do is really important and connecting with people who are passionate about the product as well.
Felix: What do you think draws prospective customers to your social media page or your Instagram and to ultimately follow you? What do you think it is that you guys are doing that just when I come to the page, it’s like, you know [inaudible] a subscriber followed this account?
Lindsay: I think it’s two things. I think that the number one inevitable thing that we’re so grateful for is the cuteness factor because dealing with dogs, it’s dogs are just so cute and adorable and love sharing all of that content, especially when it’s our own customers sharing photos. We love re posting and just sharing that kind of organic content. It’s so important to us and it just warms our hearts. We’re seeing it every day. It makes us so happy.
And the other factor is, I would say the kind of like I was just mentioning, how it’s a polarizing topic. People are kind of drawn to this, whether they’re coming to our page to disagree or agree or talk about their own Vegan dog. It’s a place where people can learn if they’re willing to learn and it’s so much information and on this topic that is just not in the mainstream public, especially in the pet food industry. It’s starting to shift a little bit and plant-based proteins and diets for dogs are being talked about a bit more, but it still has that kind of high meat protein, wolf-feel in a lot of the marketing. So we come in, we’re like, "Hey, dogs can actually thrive on a meatless diet and people kind of don’t really know how to react and that draws them to a page like ours because either they’re upset or they want to learn or there are all sorts of reasons. But I would say that’s the biggest part of it.
Felix: But that’s a good point about how you’re representing basically a polarizing topic and a lot of times entrepreneurs, business owners will stay away from that. Right? They don’t want to get into a business and industry that can … to them, there’s already enough kind of potential negative feedback that just throwing themselves into a polarizing kind of industry as a Vegan, the topic of Veganism is already dotting enough. So how do you guys address things like disagreement that’s public and maybe even to the extent of potential trolls or people that are coming on just to kind of hate essentially on your business and your cause?
Lindsay: Oh, yes. We have a lot of experience with that and I will tell you across the board our number one strategy and goal with responding to troll-like comments, or negativity, or really mean comments are always, always with kindness. We’re always writing back in a really positive manner, offering information, offering a positive perspective, offering our email address, our phone number, saying we’re here to help, smiley faces. Just really positive things we would never have engaged in a negative way. And basically a part of it too is if someone really is just there to argue, at some point, of course, you just let it go and you’ve provided the information that you can, you’ve come in with kindness and a positive perspective. And that’s really important for us too because Vegan is such a heavy word and we recognize that and we want to really position it in the most kind, compassionate, positive way possible.
And since I’ve been at the company, it’s been about six years now and we’ve made sure that … and everyone is already on the same page, is that everyone is just so sweet that works here and manages our social and we’re just that … that’s always kind of been our policy, is the kindness component. And it’s going to work differently for every brand. But I think across the board, the whole respond with information, say that you’re willing to help, offer email addresses and phone numbers, and then at the final point kind of know when to just kind of let something go if it doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere and maybe that person is just venting a little bit or not having a good day. That’s part of it too.
Felix: Yeah. What I’ve seen is polarization is actually one of the best things for your marketing because it makes your true customers who that really believe in the cause even more fired up for the cause. And it gives you the opportunity as the brand is stepping up on the stage that, because now there’s disagreement now gives you an opportunity to respond and present your opinion, present the information. It’s almost like a kind of teeing you up basically to give kind of your perspective. So it’s almost like you shouldn’t shy away from it, obviously, it can be tiring after a while. It gives you a lot of negativity, but it also gives you an opportunity to communicate with your audience. So you mentioned as well about the, about us page is a place where you are able to express the kind of core values of the business. Do you find that there’s a lot of traffic that goes to the about us page?
Lindsay: I would say that our most popular pages are our product pages for sure, way above other pages like our, about us. But there’s a significant amount of traffic to it since people are kind of curious, “Who are the people behind this brand? Are they real people? I want to see pictures of them.” And we’re actually working on kind of customizing that even more with more photos. We have so much content, whether it’s from when we did a team day over out to a [inaudible] sanctuary and we’re like out there playing with pigs and goats and we’ve such adorable photos than that. So we’re always working to kind of add that to the main say on our website, but we do share a lot of stuff like that more on social.
But I would say by far, people are mostly curious about the products and then they want to get there, they want to read the ingredients, they want to see what we offer, they want to see the price, they want to learn about our subscription model. So I would say those pages definitely kind of overpower the about us, but there’s definitely significant traffic and curiosity about pages like the about us page as well.
Felix: So you mentioned the photos of your team days that you guys are spending time together doing cool things. What do you think are some of the other kind of important details to include an about us page, whether you guys have it today or you plan on adding in the near future?
Lindsay: I think that anything that showcases that you’re real people that really believe in the product that you’re selling or the movement that’s behind it, those are really the key components. And what I look for as a consumer, I was just looking at some clothing company the other day that kind of came up as an ad. I’m always curious about those things from a marketing standpoint. So I was looking at it and I always personally go to the about us page or our story page because I want to know what the company is about. I want to know what kind of materials they’re using. Are they sustainable materials, did they use any animal products in their materials. Of course that’s specific to a Vegan person who’s concerned with those things. But you can carry over too no matter what you’re passionate about. So I think that the page that showcases your team photos are really important. And just kind of explaining the story and showing off that authenticity factor.
Felix: So you mentioned that one of your key roles is around partnerships and making sure you have strategic partnerships and connections to grow the brand. Can you say a little more about this? What kind of partnerships do you guys develop and have?
Lindsay: Sure. So our founder, Dave, and his wife, Linda, they started off with a company back in Sacramento and they had really strong roots to the Vegan community there. So we are lucky enough to kind of start off in a place where we had a lot of connections. And then from there we really did a lot of in-person veg fest and kind of direct marketing, handing out samples to people. So a lot of our initial growth and our initial connections really grew out of that is establishing this kind of on the ground partnerships with people in the community where we’re selling our product to.
So I know there’s basically an expo for everything nowadays and the thing is they’re not cheap and you have to travel to them and there is always kind of costs involved. So we traditionally used to do a lot of them and it was really important when we were getting started and since we’ve scaled them back, we still go to some of the bigger events throughout the year, all over the country, mostly on the west coast. But I would say that was a really important part of kind of getting our brand off the ground, and really connecting face to face with our people ,and letting them see the product, and feed it to their dogs, and kind of get their hands on it back when we were first getting started till the present day.
Felix: Got it. So are these retail partners or are they, I guess, influencers or what are some key types of people … Like if someone wants to take this approach of partnering up or establishing partnerships to grow their brand, who should they be looking for? Who should they kind of set their sights on to try to reach and get their product in front of?
Lindsay: I think all of the above. So the veg fest, and food festivals, and expos, that would be the way we work that is direct to the customer. So we physically hand a sample right to the person that’s going to go home and take it to their dog and then ideally check our website maybe buy. So that’s one part of it. Another part is at different events, there are bigger scale events where you go there to connect with retailers or distributors, whether it’s in, for us, the pet food industry or in the natural food space. So that’s important as well. For us, we’ve focused mostly on eCommerce as a Shopify business.
We also sell heavily on Amazon and Chewy. So for us the physical distributor route hasn’t taken strong priorities, so we focus on direct customer as well as social. Since social is important for us, we have various social media ambassadors that we do content for product trades and all sorts of different relationships, whether it’s blogging or Youtubing video content creation stories just to kind of really get a buzz. So Instagram and social partnerships are really important. And I think again, for us, that really does circle back to the authenticity factor because people approach us all the time and we love it. And they say, “I’ve heard about your brand. I really want to represent you.” Or, “I really want to try this for my dog.” And at that point we determine if it’s a good partnership. But since they know that we are this company that really believes in what we’re doing, it makes for kind of this more stronger organic partnership as well.
Felix: When it comes to these social media ambassadors, what kind of involvement do you have in the kind of content that you would like them to produce?
Lindsay: What we do for all new social media collaborators is we have a deck that we send over, which kind of outlines what we’ve done in the past and who we’ve worked with, some examples of content, whether it’s a video, or a poster, or a story. So we kind of lay all of that out in a deck and that’s like a pdf scrollable deck. And this way they can kind of make sure they get a feel for what we’re looking for. And then once we agree to a partnership, whatever the partnership details are, we also create a document where we both sign off on the partnership to ensure that the posts are made and that the collaboration goes smoothly and everyone understands everything.
For example, we always have the ambassador have the product in the photo or the video and that we’re tagged. So we want to kind of create that as the baseline. So if people see the product, they can very easily find our page. And just to kind of set that as the precedent for creating the content. So little things like that, we just make sure that everyone signs off on those as we get going with new partnerships.
Felix: How many ambassadors do you try to work with?
Lindsay: I would say right now we have less than a hundred ambassadors, but we’d love to have more. And I think it’s something that we could probably prioritize. We always have so many marketing campaigns and different streams of marketing going on. But we love the people that we collaborate with and I think we focus a lot of our time on the ones that we’re working with, re posting them, and working with them, and sending them product, and making sure everything’s good with them. It’s kind of a big task. So I think maybe that’s part of why we haven’t grown it to the hundreds. But I think that it’s definitely doable and definitely important. You see so many brands out there. That’s really how they’ve grown. There’s fashion brands and all sorts of other brands that have basically existed because of social media. So it’s clearly a really important space.
Felix: Do you have some kind of system or tools that you use to keep track of all of this? Of all the ambassadors?
Lindsay: Someone on our team manages it. So they check in various increments to ensure that everyone is posting at the right time. And honestly, I think what it goes back to since we have it, we don’t have it on a massive scale right now. We’re able to really trust the people that we partner with and we do check that all the posts are being made and such and we visit in with them and make sure everything’s going smoothly. But on a larger scale, if we were working with hundreds of ambassadors, I’m sure there would need to be some more tools in place, which I don’t know about at this time.
Felix: If yourself or your team, you could only focus on one marketing strategy or one channel, which one would you choose?
Lindsay: I would say email at this point. We focus a lot on our email marketing and reaching people in a way that is giving them the information they want. So with the Vegan plant-based dog food space, there’s a lot of learning to be done. So even if someone’s already on board with this type of diet for their dog, there’s so much information and there’s so much to absorb and so much to learn. So we like to just really consolidate that and send it out to our customers in addition to prospective customers or people trying to decide if this is the right product for their dog. And then what we do is we use MailChimp, which I really love. It’s really user-friendly and the reports are great as long as it’s properly tied into your Shopify and you can view all reports by campaigns and lots of really good statistics. So in addition to that, you can also, of course, create abandoned cart email streams and new customer welcome email streams. So those are all really important tools for us that we’re utilizing and having a lot of success with.
Felix: So are these past customers that are joining the email list or how are you typically getting on the list?
Lindsay: It’s both. So we use an app to create popups and the app is called Privy. It’s actually a really great app. It’s free and I think we’ve upgraded to a low monthly paid model for them. But you can tie that into both your Shopify and your MailChimp, so you can grow your email list. So we use that if people are just kind of new and they’re browsing the site, they can sign up, and then they can get a coupon in their first order. And then they’re drawn into one of the email streams where we send out good information about our products and about Vegan dogs and information from our blog and our vets. And then additionally, existing customers are in our database of course. Since their email is attached to their order and it’s in Shopify. And within MailChimp you’re able to kind of use tags and segment all sorts of different things based on order numbers, so you can send an email list to all of your customers that have more than one order or have zero orders. So those are all really useful components to it as well.
Felix: Do you know approximately how large the list has grown to now?
Lindsay: Oh my gosh, I don’t know off the top of my head, but we have been around for 13 years and we’ve, I would say, only in the past five or so years been working on growing our email list. I wish that we had done it sooner because it would probably be a lot larger, but it’s pretty vast and I would love to see it grow even more. And it’s always so funny from a personal perspective focusing on email marketing because I don’t like to get a lot of emails. So I always keep that in mind when I’m creating content on our end because I want to just make sure it’s stuff that people want to read. It’s cute. So we’ve got some adorable photos in there and it’s a couple of quick links that are hopefully helpful or it’s a nice little easy treat recipe that you can make at home for your dog that they can enjoy. So we try to keep it simple and keep it short and not overdo it. That’s something that I try to kind of keep in our strategy there.
Felix: Right. So you mentioned that you use Privy to collect the emails. What are some good ways that you’ve found to incentivize someone to join the list?
Lindsay: Yeah, the biggest one we have right now joins our list kind of the typical for updates, stay in the loop type thing, and get $5 off your first order. We’re experimenting with different coupon amounts and different ways of doing that. And we also just started doing a new subscription pricing model as well. So that’s our biggest kind of drive right now is to show that to new customers that they can get a really good deal on their subscription service. And we just started offering free shipping last year as well, which was really important for us. But yeah, using Privy as a popup on various pages with various types of methods like exit intent or a timer. And those also work really well if you have updates to share or if you have sales going on.
For example, we’re working on a new product this year, so of course we’re going to be using that to show off the new product in addition to the theme that we use in Shopify. It has a new feature. I don’t know if this is a Shopify feature or specific to the theme that we’re working within, but there’s like a top banner feature so you can always have this kind of thin banner that makes an announcement up there, which is really nice too. You can either show it or hide it. So when we have the new product launch, it can kind of be static at the top of every page there, which is nice.
Felix: You mentioned one of the key reasons why you wanted to get people onto the list is for education and even if they are existing customers, there’s always education that you can provide to them. How do you structure this? How do you make sure that you kind of gets your points across, that education across without overwhelming them?
Lindsay: Yeah. We like to keep it simple and we create a lot of blog posts in addition to a new page that we have. So this is really exciting. MailChimp just created at least later last year, the end of last year, they created the ability to create landing pages, which is really great. If you want to just create a simple landing page, you can verify your URL and even have your own URL, like vdog.com, show up instead of a MailChimp URL. You just do it through kind of your backend domain and you can really use our drag and drop methods to create a landing page and show off information on any topic. So we definitely use that and it’s been really helpful. We have a new kind of Vegan dogs 101 pages where we have just lots of cute images along with the top questions that we get.
So basically to answer your question, it’s kind of being in the business for so many years. We’ve created an FAQ page and those are based on our top question. So we’ve taken those kinds of top questions and looked up the research behind them and kind of consolidated things into pages and blog posts that we can kind of concisely and precisely present to the customers. That’s not just an overwhelming amount of information, but they can kind of sift through the photos for example on the landing page and be like, “Oh, this relates to me, ‘how to transition my dog to this food.’” And they can easily find it within that page versus the FAQ page is helpful as well, but we want it to go a little bit beyond that with some more resources.
Felix: I like that approach. So I think a lot of times when we are tasked or task ourselves with creating content, and creating blog posts, creating newsletters, we started thinking, “Oh, let me try and think of something off the top of my head to create.” But you’re taking, I think, a much better and scientific approach versus just the fine, what are the top questions people are asking you? What would make it into your FAQs and create answers to them. Create the answers to the questions in a form of a blog post and go in depth. I mean that’s a great approach and you can almost get endless supply of questions after a while. Right? From your customers to answer in depth. And so you mentioned the blog posts that you’re sharing through email marketing, product information going out, you mentioned recipes are going out, out of all those types of emails, what kind of emails do you find get the most interaction, whether they opened them more frequently or clicked on them more frequently, which one of the kind of types of emails you send out get the best engagement?
Lindsay: Yeah, this is always so fun to see. So we work with some contracted marketing people who are experts in analyzing these things. And I worked together with them to take our kind of monthly newsletters or new customer welcome emails and all of our streams to kind of look at the click through rates and look at what content is most popular. And a small example in one of our newsletter is the video block we had in there wasn’t performing well. So we decided to remove it and replace it with another component that was doing well in addition to a easier access to something like a shop button.
So what people kind of do is you’ll scroll and you’ll maybe read one article and you’ll be back in the email and you’d be like, “Okay, well now I want to visit their website.” But then if it’s all the way at the bottom, for example, you don’t want to bombard people with the shop now all the time because it’s an informational newsletter. So something that we’ve played around with is balancing the delicate act of kind of where to place that and how to make it easy for people but not kind of have people feel like we’re really forcing them to shop. We really do want them to get this information and feel confident about us, about what we’re doing, and about the product. So we’re always revisiting that. I think it’s an ongoing process and just staying in tune with our analytics, and MailChimp and Google analytics really helps us see what’s working and what’s not.
Felix: So you mentioned that the subscription model is a new type of business model for you guys.
Lindsay: So we’ve had it for, I think about, four or five years now, but we’ve just recently changed the pricing structure.
Felix: I see. When you introduce this, what was the reasoning behind that? What did you see, either from your customers or in the marketplace, that made you decide to add the subscription model?
Lindsay: You know what? People always ask us for it and it was so wonderful to finally be able to implement it because I get it. It’s this big bag of dog food. First of all, you don’t really necessarily want to go to the pet food store and lug that around, especially we’re in San Francisco. In the city you have to take a Lyft or Uber. Not a lot of people have cars. You kind of luging in this background. So that’s a common experience. So the eCommerce of it alleviates that and we’re happy to be in that space. And we’ve been in that space since 2005 kind of our founder set it up really ahead of its time. So I think people kind of question that, “Oh dog food. You’re going to sell it online. That’s kind of a weird.” But we stuck with it and obviously it’s working out really well and we’re grateful for that.
But the other component is to make it even easier. It’s like, “Well, I don’t really want to go on every month and have to navigate this website and place an order. Can you just send my order automatically?” And for many years we didn’t have that capability. There wasn’t an app that fit our needs right or we just didn’t find the right app. We didn’t have the capacity to find the right app for whatever reason. Our team was small. So finally we did get going with a recurring order app. Currently we use bold recurring orders through Shopify and I would say most of our customers purchase through our subscription, which makes me so happy. We know that it’s convenient and they’re able to log into their account, they’re able to change the increment, change the products, get the shipment. So it’s really flexible and it’s something that I’m so happy to provide because I remember back in the day when everyone was kind of … we got so many requests for it. For us, it grew out of simply people asking for it.
Felix: Well how does this change your logistics to execute on all the subscriptions that are signed up?
Lindsay: On the kind of logistics and execution … and it doesn’t change much because the app pulls the order right into Shopify as if that person was placing the order in front of their computer right that that morning. So then it just pulls through to where we have two warehouses, one on the east coast, one in the west, and our orders a separate are separated out east and west. So say someone over in New York orders, the order populates just as if they placed the order that morning thing and then it’s boxed up and shipped out either that day or the next morning, just as if it flowed through as if it were a manual order.
Felix: When someone comes to this site to buy just for the first time. Do they easily learn about the subscription model or is that introduced to them later? How do you introduce it to a new customer that’s about to buy?
Lindsay: Yeah, in the past we didn’t have it set up as prominently as it is now, but if you go to our website now you’ll see it’s the number one feature right on our home page as well as when you’re on any of the product pages. There’s a little bubble where you can choose one-time purchase or you can choose the subscribe and save option. So we like to think it’s pretty well spelled out and we’re always working on getting customer feedback and making sure things are being up in a user-friendly way.
Felix: So you answered that you’re selling on Amazon, also Chewy. I think you might be the first guest on this show to sign on Chewy. What was that like? How did you guys get your product on Chewy?
Lindsay: We have been selling on Chewy for a couple of years now, so we’re kind of new to it, but they’ve been a really great customer of ours and people love Chewy. They have super fast shipping and they’re really easy to work with. Just like we like to pride ourselves in customer service, Chewy does too. They have people that are always there to answer your questions. So it’s a really nice fit for our product and we’re happy to be selling on there. As far as how we got selling, I believe they approached us because they work a lot through their search algorithms. So a lot of people were searching Vegan dog food or V-dog on their site enough to the point where it made our brand pretty desirable for them to carry.
Now, I wasn’t involved in the negotiations for all of that. So I don’t know a ton of it, but I know that we’re selling a lot to them and it’s been working out really well and people are always really excited to hear not only are we selling on Amazon but, “Oh, I think they’re on Chewy. That’s great.” I already have a subscription order on Chewy for this or for that, or that’s where I get my dog’s toys or dog bed and stuff. So it’s just nice to kind of have our products in these avenues that make it easier for people. We want it to be convenient and comfortable for their experience.
Felix: Right. When you sell on a platform like this, how does customer service work when a customer wants to … they’ll purchase a product or thinking about purchasing a product and which is how to Chewy?
Lindsay: Chewy handles all of the customer questions, and concerns, and returns, and everything. The only time that they reach out to us on items like that is if the customer has a specific question they don’t know the answer to. Something like if it’s about a vitamin in our formula or if it’s about something really specific like that, but they’re really knowledgeable. And in the beginning, when we set up, I remember we had kind of an initial call and they were able to ask any questions about the brand. But yeah, it’s been really smooth so far. And they take all of the customer questions directly if it’s someone that’s buying our product on Chewy.
Felix: That’s great. When it comes to logistics, how does it work with Chewy? If someone buys on there, how does it kind of flow through the rest of your supply chain?
Lindsay: So Chewy buys the product from us and then they take the product and then warehouse it themselves. They have many warehouses and that’s why they can ship so quickly, is that they take our product and all other products and they put it in their warehouses and then it’s as if it’s their product and then they ship it to the customers.
Felix: That’s great. It makes a lot easier for you. So you mentioned one of the best marketing strategies you’ve had is your year’s worth of V-dog kibble giveaway which you do every July. Tell us more about this. How does a give away work?
Lindsay: Yes. So every July we have Vegan dog month. And the goal of that month is to just create a lot of excitement and buzz around the topic of feeding dogs a complete and balanced plant-based diet and showing off how they thrive, and how happy they are, and ultimately how much they love the food. And I always laugh because I tell people that my dog’s favorite treats, aside from the V-dog products, are chickpeas and broccoli stems, which I just think is like the funniest most Vegan ever. People always crack up with that. It’s hilarious. So Vegan dog month is just having conversations about that and our giveaway, we did it for the first time last year where we did a year’s worth of kibble. So the way we do it is we have a signup page and anyone interested, they can put in their email address and then we gather a list.
This year we used [inaudible]. Last year we used MailChimp and then we use a random winner generator to pick the winner. And this year it was this wonderful woman with two dogs. And she was so happy and grateful and in a previous interview someone asked me, “How do we ensure that that person’s going to post pictures, and talk about us, and kind of what are we going to get out of it?” And, to us, we know that we’ve had that communication with the customer and whether they post about it or tell a million people about it isn’t our major concern. We’re just happy that we were able to give this product to someone who was clearly very interested in it. Often it’s a new customer so that’s even better that this person kind of gets to try it out. If they’re a new customer, we’ll of course probably send them a small amount before we send a full year just in case, so their dog can get a feel for it. That’s a little part of it too.
But I think this year it was an existing customer, so she was so grateful. And we loved you and we love being able to provide that type of gift. And in addition to being able to provide that, it just gets this really great buzz. I mean it’s a great prize, right? Who doesn’t want that amount of dog food for their dog for the whole year? And we recognize that and we’re happy to be able to provide something like that. In addition too, throughout the year we also often donate our slightly damaged bags to rescues and sanctuaries. So that’s another important part of our giving component.
Felix: How do you promote a giveaway?
Lindsay: We promote it through social media, and our email newsletter, and then we have a landing page, which we usually do something like create a bitly link for it and link it in various parts, like in our Instagram bio, on Twitter, on our Facebook posts. So it’s kind of an all-around model of just getting a word out there. And additionally, we play around with sponsored posts and allocating a little bit of budget to getting the word out in things like Facebook ads and directing people back to the landing page where they can sign up with their email address.
Felix: And you mentioned earlier that you guys recently went through some website updates. Well, what did you guys want to change the website to improve it?
Lindsay: With our website updates, the main goal was to incorporate some of our new photography. So something that I would say took us a while to fine tune is finding the right photographer and getting the right shots and getting the shots that work for what we need. Especially big wide, beautiful, cute happy dog shots for our website. So that was the main goal of our most recent update was getting those photos on there and the best way of working with our designer, working with our web developer. And of course, before that, we had to get to the point where we found the ideal photographer and the person who is able to get the shots that we wanted. So the update was really focused around photos and making sure the web space, especially the homepage is a bit more photo driven. So we added some more photo blocks so you can easily access things like our new welcome page and it’s kind of right there, all laid out on the first page. So I would say our homepage and the kind of photo edits were the main drivers there.
Felix: But why did you decide that you wanted to make it more photo-driven?
Lindsay: We see a lot of websites that we love. We’re really invested in kind of inspirational brands, whether it’s in the Vegan community or beyond, whether it’s just a cool product or something that we buy ourselves and we see their websites and we know that we like them personally. We know we like the clean, easy to navigate look. So it comes from within ourselves that just being, we know what we want this to look like. We know what we enjoy as an experience of online shopping or browsing and learning, so we just try to take that personal experience and infuse that into the updates that we create for our own website.
Felix: And is the site design designed in-house or do you guys have hired out for that?
Lindsay: It’s a combination. So we work, some of us in-house help kind of strategize on what we want and kind of whether it’s the copy or the image and we bring in our graphic design and then ultimately we have a developer that we hire works in the backend of Shopify, which is important. We took a while to find the right person too because of course, some developers are really great, but they don’t have Shopify expertise. So that’s really important. To avoid that kind of learning curve or initial speed bumps is to find someone that is a Shopify specific code expert.
Felix: Maybe tips there on finding something like that.
Lindsay: There is a page on Shopify where you can find the top Shopify experts and I believe we’ve found a couple of people off of there. So that’s definitely been helpful. And then beyond that, it’s really just figuring out what type of workflow you want, so we use asana. So our developer was not only a top Shopify expert, but they were super happy and accommodating for our methods and for using asana. And the type of project scale, often we’re not doing these massive overhauls. They’re kind of like lots of little updates that are kind of bunched into a month long project. So finding someone that is able to work with your timeline and your project size to is important because you can look at the Shopify page and there’s a whole list of experts there. So you can kind of start there, and then weed through them, and have some calls, and communicate with people, and see maybe which one is the best fit for your company and what you need.
Felix: That’s a good point there. It’s not just about their experience and their skill sets, but then how well can they fit into your existing system. If they had never used your project management tools before, there’s definitely a learning curve that’s associated that can kind of slow things down. And the page we’re talking about is experts.shopify.com page where you can find a list of experts that they have experience with Shopify. And so one thing I noticed about this site was that on the top there’s like basically three links at least on the desktop side. There are three links they can click on. One of them is occupied by testimonials. Why did you find that it was important to have this kind of prominent part of the navigation for customers to be able to find your testimonials?
Lindsay: Yes. Testimonials are so important for us and they have been basically since our inception, being in a space where people are deciding on their dog’s nourishment and their dogs day-to-day eating, and enjoyment, and happiness, and health. What really helps people to see that it’s a positive thing is reading other people’s stories and not just other people’s stories, but we even have our segment or section segmented out on the testimonials page there. And you could see one is even called miracle stories and there are just these incredible stories of dogs healing from all sorts of things, from seizures to terrible skin and allergy conditions. And it gives that little extra layer of confidence that, “Okay, there’s someone out there who has had a lot of success feeding this product to their dog and it makes me feel a little bit more comfortable in trying it.”
And it’s always been a priority of ours since we’re dog parents. We feel that that is something that is a priority of us when we’re finding new products and learning about new topics, is that we like to see real-life stories. And I think again, it comes back to the authenticity factors. Here are real-life dogs that had been thriving on this food for so many years or this person just switched and here’s their experience. But yeah, we just also love to share people’s stories and it’s always fun for a customer to see their dog on the website too. So that’s part of it as well.
Felix: So you mentioned so far Privy and the bold recurring orders apps that you’re using on Shopify … Are there any other apps that you recommend the listeners check out?
Lindsay: Yeah, one that comes to mind that we’ve been playing around with a bit lately is called Conversio. And the main thing you can use it for targeted or segmented email receipts as well as all sorts of email campaigns as well. But we recently added their photo review tool and it’s been the best thing ever. It basically in a way mimics how Amazon does reviews where you could see photos and texts. And previously we just had text and how many stars the customer gave the product.
But ever since we implemented the tool it’s the most exciting time of day or week when we check the review photos because they’re so adorable. We have people with their photos flowing in and their glowing reviews and it makes us so happy. And the photo part of it is so nice too because that’s also adding in that testimonial factor that people can find our product and say they’re looking at our kibble page, they scroll down, they can actually see right there a bunch of dogs enjoying the product and what the dog’s parents think about the product and how many stars they’ve given it. So that’s a really fun tool that we implemented last year.
Felix: Awesome. So what do you want to see the business go over the rest of this year?
Lindsay: We see a lot of growth potential this year. Last year was a really good year for us. This year we’re working on some new products and we’re hoping to launch that later in the year and really just round out our line and offer kind of a one-stop shop for dog parents to buy anything meatless for their dog’s diet. So we’re looking forward to continuing to grow and offer new products and grow an Amazon in Chewy as well and just kind of listen to our customers and take requests. And we’re always creating this open line of communication where we’re a team of Vegans, we hear you, we want to know what you’re thinking, we want to know what your dog’s think. And Luckily we do get tons of really positive feedback and the dogs really love the taste of everything. So it just makes us so happy that we’re able to provide something like this that allows dogs to really be in their best health. And at the same time, it’s an environmentally sustainable product as well as not needing to harm any farmed animals in the process.
Felix: Awesome. So v-dog.com is the website. Thank you so much for your time, Lindsay.
Lindsay: Thank you so much.
Felix: Thanks for tuning into another episode of Shopify masters, the eCommerce podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs powered by Shopify. To get your exclusive 30-day extended trial, visit shopify.com/masters.