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Craig Smith: “Burnout is about not growing”

Get Faster. Your site can probably be faster and this should be a key area of focus for any eCommerce brand. I always say it’s the “rising tide that lifts all boats”. It increases conversion, it increases organic google rankings and it makes customers happier as they get what they are looking for faster. It […]

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Get Faster. Your site can probably be faster and this should be a key area of focus for any eCommerce brand. I always say it’s the “rising tide that lifts all boats”. It increases conversion, it increases organic google rankings and it makes customers happier as they get what they are looking for faster. It should be reviewed every week to make sure the site is as fast as possible and a great source to use to measure that performance is Google Page Speed Insights.

As a personal story, this summer at Trinity we focused on our site speed and meeting Google’s Core Web Vitals scoring system. We integrated a bunch of changes that made our site faster and in parallel enabled us to “pass” Google’s grading system. It’s no surprise that 30 days later our traffic is up 27% and users are interacting with the site and our content at much higher levels than previously.


As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful E-Commerce Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Craig Smith, Founder & CEO of Trinity, a leading ecommerce agency in the U.S. Started in 2006.

Trinity helps ecommerce businesses grow faster through optimization. Trinity is a four time Inc. 5000 company and was previously named one of the ten fastest growing companies in Philadelphia by INC Magazine.

Craig has been working within the Internet sector since 1999. After receiving an MBA in eCommerce from Temple University, Craig worked with CIGNA Corporation (NYSE: CI) as a consultant that helped transform internal enrollment processes to a digital model (MyCigna.com).

Craig has been quoted discussing web optimization in the Wall Street Journal, Stores Magazine, Internet Retailer, and Practical eCommerce. He is a frequent speaker at global eCommerce events and frequently lectures on web optimization at New York University and Villanova University.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Sure thing, coming out of college I got a job as a regional manager at a yellow page company (can you tell how old I am from that) and that led to getting a gig as a sales rep for a technology company when the Internet was just starting to gain traction within companies. This thing called ecommerce had just started and I was fascinated by the transformations that businesses could embrace by leveraging the internet as a distribution tool.

I went back to school, got my MBA with a concentration in eBusiness, worked at Ebay Enterprise for a few years, and then started an agency (Trinity) to help companies grow their eCommerce sales and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 14 years.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

The aha moment would likely be when I started looking at the websites of catalogers in the United States. This is the initial category for which we targeted at Trinity.

These businesses had great products, great data, and a solid infrastructure to service customers — what they didn’t have was a proper website that is measured properly along with the proper strategy to increase traffic and conversion rates. My mind sensed a great opportunity.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I didn’t feel intense adversity until the financial crisis of 2008. We had large customers who had their budgets cut and we had about 35% of our client base reduced in a very rapid fashion.

I never considered giving up and just went back to the fundamentals of gaining and serving customers as best we could. The drive to persist comes down to the one question “Are you going to give up” — for me to give up it would have to be insurmountable odds and it was not at that point.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Things today are going well. Similar to 2008, this crisis led to major client budget cuts — especially in the travel category. It led to us experiencing a similar drop in revenue but we have always been financially conservative with taking on any debt and that level of liquidity allowed us to manage the crisis and focus on customer support and acquisition and we are just now hitting our pre-COVID revenue thresholds.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

I was at the eCommerce industry’s largest conference at the time, Shop.org, and I was networking my tail off. I saw a contact that I wanted to meet and proceeded to spill coffee on her notebook. Somehow I took that initial adverse event and was able to turn it around to a very productive conversation and a 5-year flagship customer. The takeaway from that is even with initial missteps, your destiny is yours for the taking with focus, belief, and direct action.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What makes our company stand out is our obsession with data. The biggest difference in the digital market versus brick and mortar is the extreme trackability of the former. When clients come to us from other agencies and see the level of visual insights that we can share with their existing analytics and website data, typically that is a WOW moment that sets the relationship on the right path.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Burnout is about not growing. To avoid burnout, I would recommend that you set concrete plans in motion, with REALISTIC goals, and be sure to celebrate successes along the way. Also, be sure to invest in learning and always have a new topic or skill to be looking at to stretch your mind.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Without question my parents. My dad was a self-employed engineer who showed me the power of focus and putting your energy and attention into what needs to get done at a point in time. My mother helped teach me the ability to relate to people, and more importantly, to ask engaging questions to understand the needs and desires of those your encounter. All those times sitting in the grocery line for an extra five minutes as my mom chatted with the grocery associate clerk, who would have known that it laid the foundation for my work today.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that eCommerce businesses are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

Well, the main idea is that the DTC economy is bigger than ever and entrepreneurs are taking the steps to start businesses at a rate like never before. More and more “big box” retailers are going out of business — but people need to buy somewhere. It’s easier than ever to find suppliers and leverage unique packaging and service strategies to gain new customers. The trick is doing it profitably and getting customers to come back for the second and third purchases. That is where the leaders will emerge — and partly why subscription eCommerce models have soared.

Amazon and even Walmart are going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

Stick to the fundamentals. Make a great product. Deliver tremendous service and content to your customer. Ensure relevant communications by using personalization in your site and within your email program. The quality brands will rise to the surface by focusing on the things that consumers want most.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start an eCommerce business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

The biggest thing that I see is businesses expecting to create eCommerce profits on product margins that are 25% or less. That is incredibly difficult from what I see and encounter, and even can be more difficult to drop shop business models (where the supplier ships on your behalf). There just needs to be a modeling process where the business factors in significant cost for marketing, for ancillary costs such as platforms and packaging, and the expected return purchase behavior and lifetime value of a customer. The rule of thumb that I follow, if it’s less than 50% margin — is going to be tough to be overly successful in creating profits on the first customer order.

In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Content without question. Brands need to invest in unique content at all levels of their site and it frequently is an afterthought. At the category page, the product page, within an educational center or blog on your site, and within social media — your brand needs to educate your audience into the value of your products and what makes it different. This type of content will improve conversion rates and drive more organic search traffic as Google will identify the new content and serve it to consumers who are searching on the topic. When you get these content-driven sessions, it’s paramount to “retarget” these consumers on Facebook and Google with your core offers.

Can you share a few examples of tools or software that you think can dramatically empower emerging eCommerce brands to be more effective and more successful?

There are so many tools that a business needs to run at all cylinders but here are the three that are most vital in my mind.

  1. An email system that enables personalized messaging at scale (creating customer journeys that are unique by purchases and demographics)
  2. An optimization platform to test page presentations and gather primary research
  3. A content delivery network (i.e. CDN) that is going to make your site faster so consumers don’t quickly bail on mobile

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies an eCommerce business should use to increase conversion rates?

First thing is to identify where within your store is the most “leakage” from your analytics. After that, a brand should conduct primary research into those areas to find out why this extra level of friction is happening. Lastly, is to create new pages and presentation versions to improve the “micro-conversion” of a given page or process and test against the existing page. This process is called conversion rate optimization and is a key tenet of what we help brands with.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that an eCommerce business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

Do things that impress your customers on an emotional level to build loyalty. It’s amazing how some brands invest in this and reap the benefits. For example, Chewy asked my wife to send a picture of her dog to them via email. Three weeks later a hand-painted picture of our dog arrived in our mail. My wife was blown away and told me she will never buy dog food anywhere else. They earned her business and will have it for a very long time unless they lose her trust through bad service.

One of the main benefits of shopping online is the ability to read reviews. Consumers love it! While good reviews are of course positive for a brand, poor reviews can be very damaging. In your experience what are a few things a brand should do to properly and effectively respond to poor reviews? How about other unfair things said online about a brand?

Reviews are tricky but a critical piece. First off, I wouldn’t say that bad reviews provide no value. They help a brand identify what within their product or service model needs to be improved. They also provide a level of “realness” as consumers are realizing that five-star reviews on all your products are likely fabricated. What I would say is to monitor negative reviews daily, have a flagging process that leads to customer outreach to try and make things right. Getting better every day by following this path will help the bad reviews become good and propel the business to higher levels.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful e-commerce business? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Review your data daily

As an eCommerce entrepreneur, your business is going to undoubtedly experience wild swings and unexpected developments. Competitive pricing, seasonality, tech bugs, search rankings — the list goes on and on into what can change each day. It is paramount to set the proper tracking mechanisms so you can quickly gain the insight you need each morning to assess the “state of the union” and what you need to do that day to get back on track or continue the positive momentum.

At Trinity we create custom dashboards for customers but anyone can use inexpensive tools to help with this each day. I love using CYFE as each morning it gives me the intel I need across all aspects of my business — marketing, operations, and sales — so I can make the right moves each day on our chessboard.

2. Always think about what your audience wants to learn

When people are passionate about a topic, they want to learn more and ingest more content. Any eCommerce business that wants to reach its potential must invest in the development of diverse content that is going to help build a bond with their customers. We are not talking about boring blog posts bit rather videos, info guides, proprietary research, interactive calculators and tools etc. These are the interaction points within the research phase of the customer journey and can’t be neglected.

A great story of this is with a Trinity customer that specializes in the hunting market. By increasing the volume of content that they push out as well as by creating post-purchase content that educated their customers into how to maximize their product, they saw their repeat visits and purchases increase by 20%.

3. Get Faster

Your site can probably be faster and this should be a key area of focus for any eCommerce brand. I always say it’s the “rising tide that lifts all boats”. It increases conversion, it increases organic google rankings and it makes customers happier as they get what they are looking for faster. It should be reviewed every week to make sure the site is as fast as possible and a great source to use to measure that performance is Google Page Speed Insights.

As a personal story, this summer at Trinity we focused on our site speed and meeting Google’s Core Web Vitals scoring system. We integrated a bunch of changes that made our site faster and in parallel enabled us to “pass” Google’s grading system. It’s no surprise that 30 days later our traffic is up 27% and users are interacting with the site and our content at much higher levels than previously.

4. Make it personal

The buzzword personalization gets thrown around a ton, but it’s an area that also can’t be neglected. The easiest way to conduct personalization is by creating automated “flows” on your site that send triggered communications to customers based on browse and purchase history. At Trinity we look at this as a playbook of sorts, something each brand can leverage and deploy with a progressive email tool.

As an example, we work with an office supplies brand that had no personalized emails going to its customers. It was always one email blast a week to everyone. By integrating new automation via email that centered on key eCommerce aspects such as browse abandonment, cart abandonment, win-back campaigns etc — we were able to drive 116% growth in email revenue.

5. Invest in imagery

Humans are visual creatures. We scan and do not read typically online. That is why I always recommend short and bulleted product details so customers can easily ingest the information. Because of this, you want to make sure your product has beautiful photography that allows your products to sell themselves. Too often I see product pages with stock photos that 30 other brands may be using. A better approach is to take these photos yourselves (or hire a firm) so you can engage your audience visually.

A personal story here is with a small customer of ours who was a start-up in the apparel space. Even though the products were fantastic, he was having a hard time getting his conversion rate to the level he thought he could be at. By reshooting all his products and by adding pan and zoom capabilities to his product pages and enabling this capability within his mobile traffic, he was able to exceed his conversion goals.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Honestly, right now I just want to see more unity in this great country as we turn the corner on a very tough year for everyone. Love your neighbor! 😊

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, connect with me on Linked IN and of course go to our website at Trinity.one where you can read 30 case studies all in the area of ecommerce optimization.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!


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