Actually ask your customers to create user generated content, leave reviews and refer friends across all touch points: on your website, in your emails and newsletters, social posts, in your app, account areas, leaflets and flyers etc. And link the requests by asking someone who gave a good review or high NPS score to refer you etc.
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 Gideon Lask, Founder and CEO of Buyapowa.
Gideon’s been working in E-commerce for over 20 years, which is pretty much as long as E-commerce has been a thing! He’s proud to have built and sold E-commerce businesses for the likes of Universal, HMV and LetsBuyIt.com, but right now he’s busy helping other brands and retailers acquire new customers in an altogether smarter way. He’s the Founder and CEO of Buyapowa, and they’re the world leaders in enterprise advocacy marketing, and their platform powers word of mouth marketing for over 100 leading brands and retailers in 27 countries and 21 languages.
Buyapowa’s clients are in fashion, beauty, retail, travel, grocery, telecommunications, banking, insurance, utilities, gaming/gambling and include household names such as Zalando, River Island, Gap, Ralph Lauren, Yves Rocher, The Perfume Shop, Carrefour, Cdiscount, T-Mobile, Vodafone, BT, Rogers, DAZN, HSBC, Ageas, EDF, British Gas, Betway etc.
The software allows clients to equip and incentivize their customers to recommend them to their friends, family and colleagues and offers incentives and rewards for genuine and successful customer referrals (e.g. a sale that has not been canceled or returned in the cooling-off period, or a credit card that has been used or insurance policy where a premium has been paid etc.).
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?
Don’t tell anyone, but I used to be a Management Consultant. Sorry! Anyway, it gave me early exposure to the Internet and I was good at helping traditional businesses take the digital transformation journey. I soon learnt that hopping from project to project wasn’t for me and that I was at my happiest immersed in a business, especially early stage startups. I gave up the suit and tie and never looked back, becoming slightly addicted to taking risks at the same time.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I’ve always been a great believer in the power of word of mouth marketing, even before my days as CEO of LetsBuyIt.com. After all word of mouth was how our ancestors learned of great products and services, back before we even knew the term marketing existed, when there weren’t any agencies to speak of — never mind smartphones, internet and social networks. And even today, the power of a recommendation from a trusted friend is consistently cited by consumers as being the most trusted information channel, far ahead of adverts, celebrity endorsements or any other advertising.
LetsBuyIt.com, as one of the earliest online group buying platforms, was definitely way ahead of its time. You have to remember that that was during the days of dial-up modems, smartphones and where social networks were just getting started.
By 2011, the panorama had completely changed, and I thought it was time to take the best of what I had learned from my time at LetsBuyIt.com and update it for the new reality of smartphones, ubiquitous broadband and the huge growth of social networks like Facebook, Twitter and chat networks like Whatsapp and Viber. That belief led to the birth of Buyapowa.com, as a consumer co-buying platform where participants could get a better deal if they got friends, family and colleagues to buy as well. However, since then we had a couple of pivots before we arrived at the magic formula of powering advocacy marketing for large enterprise brands.
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?
One of the keys to success in business is to listen to your customers. Although we started out as a consumer brand, we quickly found much more interest in what we were doing from large enterprise brands like Tesco, Argos and Oasis, who wanted a new way to engage with their consumers and get them buying online and on social. That led us to build a social commerce platform for large brands to engage consumers across all customer touch points with a series of different promotions that used gamification, time jeopardy and smart rewards to get them to rally friends to the offers.
However, despite some initial success, we found that this was not really what our clients wanted. It was too difficult to communicate these new concepts to their customers and the need to remove the sale from the standard check out process for promotions caused more problems than it was worth. What we found was that our clients actually wanted something that was easy for their customers to understand, was easy to set up and which didn’t interrupt the established check out process. This was referral marketing.
Luckily, we were able to quickly adapt our platform to accommodate referral marketing, all the while retaining key features such as gamification, tiered and intelligent rewards, triggers and other smart psychological tools which help make our advocacy marketing platform the most suited to getting referrers to refer again and again.
While it was disappointing to see our initial success in social commerce not lead to greater things, had we not sat down with our clients and not got their detailed feedback on what they really wanted, we might have missed the opportunity that is enterprise advocacy marketing. The truth is that, while you need to listen to your clients, they often don’t actually know what they want. This means you can learn as much from failures as from successes and you shouldn’t hide from customer feedback, no matter how harsh.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Since we decided to focus on referral marketing, we have gone from success to success and we now power word of mouth marketing for over 100 leading brands across fashion, beauty, retail, travel, grocery, telecommunications, banking, insurance, utilities, gaming and gambling etc..
In particular, we have been able to expand globally with clients in 27 countries and in 21 languages. A key aspect of our success in internationalising has been in hiring native speakers for our main target markets and realising that different markets have different maturities and require different selling techniques. This has required patience in building up a presence in each of the markets, as success rarely happens overnight.
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?
Back when we offered the social commerce product, we ran a very successful promotion with O2 Priority for an Ed Sheeran concert. We used gamification and the top prize was a backstage pass to meet Ed Sheeran. We generated many tens of thousands of sign ups for O2, with one person generating nearly 15,000 sign ups alone. However, our platform was able to see that almost all the referrals from that person were self referrals, even though they were from different email addresses. It appeared that one young fan had been so desperate to meet Ed that she’d been manually creating email address after email address to refer herself. This just illustrates the point that without proper anti-fraud tools, brands risk being defrauded online.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
These are some of the things that make Buyapowa stand out:
- Our conviction that referral rewards should only be paid out for true referrals and not for self referrals, sales that are later cancelled or voided as fraud
- Our belief that not all referrals should be treated equally and a referral reward should be determined according to the value of the referred customer to the business
- Our use of clever psychology such as gamification, tiered rewards, intelligent rewards, triggers and booster campaigns to get brand advocates referring again and again
In particular, the configurability of our platform means we can work with the back ends, check outs, anti-fraud systems and CRMs of our clients to match referrals to outcomes and to meet the requirements of highly regulated industries like banks and insurers and for B2B businesses that have long and complex conversion processes.
An interesting anecdote concerns a leading telecoms company that switched from an in-house referral platform to Buyapowa. At first there was some concern that reported referrals actually fell a little after the migration. However, after investigation we found that the previous platform had been merrily paying out for any simple referral including self referrals, fraudulent referrals and sales that were simply cancelled within the cooling off period. So the telecoms brand had just been burning money with its previous platform.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
As the Founder and CEO of a fast growing business, you need to have a real passion for what you are doing, and if you don’t have that passion and drive it’ll quickly show in the company’s performance. But you are correct to point out that the counter side to this is a risk of burn out if you are not careful.
If I were to advise young founders of start-ups on how to minimise the risk of burn out, I would highlight four things:
- Develop a network of trusted advisers, particularly founders of other non-competing start ups. Quite simply, because almost no problem is unique and someone will have found the answer to your problem before. By sharing advice and recommending contacts, you can save a lot of time, effort and money.
- Have fun. At Buyapowa, we always invested in quarterly social events where the team can bond over ten pin bowling, crazy-golf, go-karting and cooking lessons, followed by a meal etc. Covid-19 has meant that physical events are off the table at the moment, so we have tried to replicate this over Zoom with quizzes and treasure hunts with prizes.
- Exercise. It’s important to keep yourself in good physical shape. Again Covid-19 has not helped, but a good part of our team were regulars at Barry’s Boot Camp on a Friday afternoon.
- Flexible working. Even before Covid-19, recognising that many of the team members have long commutes to work and family commitments, we have always supported distance working. This helped smooth our move to working from home as the new normal during 2020.
None of us are able to 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?
Peter Jaco, my boss at Reuters. Jonathan Charley, my boss at Ernst & Young, Simon Fox, my boss at HMV. And John Palmer, my chairman at LetsBuyIt.com. All were mentors and to this very day I practice lessons learned from each of them.
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?
Obviously, the Pandemic has seen stores closed, or opened with social distancing, limiting the number of people who can physically be in any one store at the same time. Call centres have operated at half capacity and many people have been wary of travelling in public transport or congregating in public places. This has meant that businesses have been forced to double down on digital, and referral or word of mouth marketing has played a large part in that.
Of course, pure e-commerce players have been best positioned to benefit from this move to shopping online. Their challenges are perhaps more how to ensure their sites can stay up with the extra traffic and that their logistics can cope. From a marketing perspective, there is more noise online and it is likely that the effect of the Pandemic has been to further bid up the price of clicks and shares, meaning that word of mouth marketing offers a very cost effective alternative.
Perhaps more interesting is the reaction of multi-channel retailers and FMCG/CPG brands that have increased their investment in digital or taken their first steps in D2C marketing. For example, we are working with a large household name in beauty which is launching its first D2C marketing efforts for many of its brands, fully incorporating referral and influencer marketing into the mix.
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?
As well as working with many leading retailers, we also work with many telecommunications, banking, insurance and utilities brands. What these brands tend to have in common is that their services look very similar to those of their competitors (you get the same electricity from different providers, telecoms packages look very similar across the different networks, and one insurance policy looks much like another), they face very high marketing costs, operate in price sensitive markets with low switching costs with many price comparison websites and risk disruption from new entrants; whether fintechs, alternative energy suppliers or MVNOs.
So when it is hard to compete on product, and where competing on price is suicidal against loss making venture backed startups, how can you differentiate? The answer is to focus on excellent customer service and branding. Start by using NPS surveys and other customer feedback tools to discover how the service can be improved to increase brand trust and customer satisfaction. And then by getting those satisfied customers to bring them new ones through referrals.
I think, for once, US and European E-Commerce brands can learn much from the experience of telecommunications, banking, insurance and utilities brands. And retailers need to realise the power of word of mouth marketing and use an asset that few Chinese brands have at the moment — lots of satisfied customers in the West.
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?
I think one of the key errors a lot of e-commerce start ups make is by investing too much of their budget in performance marketing and not enough in building up longer term non paid channels. Of course, performance channels, such as paid search, paid social and affiliates, can drive quick results from in-market buyers but these often result in little long term value as price comparison sites attract price sensitive switchers and the costs of paid clicks can easily eat up all the profit margin.
To avoid paying for each customer visit ad infinitum, an eCommerce brand needs to build into its model the processes that will help customers find it on free channels and to get those customers recommending it to their social networks. And it needs to do that from the very beginning. That obviously includes building a strong brand with a great customer experience, but includes getting customers to create user generated content, leave reviews and refer friends.
In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
If you are looking to create a highly successful e-commerce business, the first thing you need to realise is the power of the assets you already have at hand: your customers past and present, your employees and your business partners. Because all of them can become Brand Ambassadors and contribute to creating the most powerful of marketing strategies: positive word of mouth.
And you should definitely not ignore the power of your employees and partners, as not only do they know your products inside and out, their livelihoods are linked to the success of your business, they are often subject matter experts and, therefore, very credible advocates.
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?
Ahead of its recent successful IPO, Airbnb announced that it gets 91% of its traffic from non paid for sources. It termed this Organic Discovery and there are many tools you can use to develop an Organic Discovery strategy for your business. These include:
- Tools to encourage your customers to create User Generated Content that you can use on and off-site to drive traffic and help with conversions. For example, Olapic, Bazaarvoice, Curalate etc.
- Tools to get reviews from your customers like Bazaarvoice, PowerReviews, Feefo and Trustpilot etc.
- NPS surveys to understand what your customers think of your business, such Qualtrics, Medallia, Hotjar or SurveyMonkey etc.
- Referral Marketing Tools like our own Buyapowa.
- Partner and Influencer Marketing tools, again like our own Buyapowa.
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?
Most of the tools mentioned above, to create UGC and get reviews, can greatly improve conversion rates, as can a good UX test and learn strategy. But it is difficult to beat the conversion rate of a referred-in friend.
Recent research from the Keller Center for Research at Baylor University (LINK TO : https://www.baylor.edu/business/kellercenter/news.php?action=story&story=214061) identified two factors why recommendations from trusted friends are such a powerful means to win new customers: Better Matching and Social Enrichment. Better matching was broken down into ‘passive’ matching due to the fact that people tend to associate with people like themselves; so a good customer is likely to know other good customers. And ‘active’ matching where referrers actively looked for people in their networks who would appreciate the offer. Social enrichment is also very powerful, as an existing customer not only knows your products and services very well, but also the preferences of their friends. So the offer is more likely to be well received by the recipient.
In other words, you are getting the right person referred in to the right product at the right time by a very credible and trusted information source.
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?
Obviously the best place to start is by having a great product or service with competitive pricing, a top notch user experience across all consumer touch points, excellent customer service and a fair returns policy. These are the basics that create high levels of consumer satisfaction, and create the basis for generating positive word of mouth. So your first goal should be to make your product or service great.
But while just having a great product or service will create some natural word of mouth, to get the maximum benefit from positive consumer sentiment, you can’t be passive. The first thing to realise is that simply telling everyone what a great product or service you have is not credible. It certainly won’t stand out against all the marketing noise out there, as all your competitors will be saying the same thing. What you need to do is have your brand ambassadors speak for you: your customers, past customers, employees, staff, partners and influencers.
In other words, as well as a great product or service, you need to have an advocate marketing strategy with a top class referral marketing platform to engage your brand ambassadors and encourage them to recommend you to their friends, family and colleagues not once but over and over again.
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?
In a quote attributed to the 15th-century monk and poet John Lyngate: “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”. That means that getting some poor reviews is a fact of life for any business, and inevitably not all your reviews will be five stars. Sometimes, perhaps the customer bought the wrong product or had a bad experience with customer support or returns. However, in some cases the review could even be malicious.
The first advice is not to panic. Unless a large percentage of your reviews are negative, in which case you need to look at whether your business actually does have some critical issues that need to be sorted. If so, then fix these issues as soon as possible. You might want to double-check with your main customer base with feedback tools and NPS surveys or point of sale interviews.
Assuming that your customer base is generally satisfied with your product or service, then you need to get more of those customers leaving reviews to drown out the poor reviews. This should ensure you have a high overall star rating despite a few bad reviews. Then the poor reviews can actually help you, as there has been plenty of research that shows customers won’t believe reviews if they are all positive.
With individual bad reviews, you may be able to reach out to the reviewer and solve the issue, or at least comment on the review to show empathy and that you are trying to solve the problem.
I won’t go into lot’s of detail as these strategies are well documented by businesses such as Bazaarvoice, PowerReviews, Feefo and Trustpilot.
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.
Here are the five things I would recommend to create an optimal environment for Organic Discovery, for which Airbnb can be a good example for almost all of these:
- First create a delightful and unique customer experience, such that your visitors will want to talk about you and share their experience with others;
- Create the infrastructure to enable your customers to create user generated content, leave reviews and refer friends;
- Actually ask your customers to create user generated content, leave reviews and refer friends across all touch points: on your website, in your emails and newsletters, social posts, in your app, account areas, leaflets and flyers etc. And link the requests by asking someone who gave a good review or high NPS score to refer you etc.
- Remind your customers to generate UGC, leave reviews and refer friends using triggers such as on contract renewal, anniversaries, birthdays, upgrades etc.
- Use psychological tools and techniques to encourage your customers to generate more UGC, leave more reviews and refer more friends, with stretch rewards, gamification, time jeopardy etc.
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. 🙂
As a father of three I think a lot about how kids can better explore, and be exposed to, career options that suit their attributes and passion. There’s so much wasted talent out there, because kids are channeled into traditional career paths based on education and background. I’d love to unlock all of that potential somehow.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!