Episode 173 Featuring Joseph Ianni

Ben Zettler - The Brand Side Experience Advantage

Ben Zettler - The Brand Side Experience Advantage

In today's episode, we talked to Ben Zettler, founder of Ben Zettler Digital Media, a Shopify marketing consultancy based in New York.

Ben discussed the three key areas he found that any e-commerce brand needs to focus on:

  • Their website
  • Customer acquisition via paid advertising
  • Customer retention and customer relationship management

He also talked about social selling which he said was the holy grail of what so many companies are looking for.


What's unique with Ben is his "brand-side experience". He started a sunglasses and lifestyle brand business called Brooktide in Shopify nine years ago. That's where he learned the ins and outs of Shopify and really understand what it took to build a business, which in his case, was built heavily on influencer marketing.

Ben also spent over 5 years at Steiner Sports, most recently as the Director of Ecommerce and Digital Marketing. These experiences shaped him to become who he is today.

His backstory, from starting his own business to having his own digital marketing agency

Ben Zettler: I started my own business on Shopify nine years ago. Now that we're in 2022, it'll be nine years in June. It was a company called Brooktide sunglasses. And why did I start that business? So I got out of college. And there was a few years there where I haven't really said this publicly. And then like, now I've sort of like started to say it and I've been on other podcasts. And like, I just tell the story.

So I got a job out of college. I graduated and then I worked the university of Maryland baseball team. I went to university of Maryland for like a one season gig that year, which was excellent. I mean, I credit so much of what I do and what I know and what my routines are and kind of how that's affected my life. Like to that experience working there as an undergrad and then even post grad, but that was just a one season gig.

ben zettler story

And then after that, I had a full-time job at a executive development position at a company which will go nameless for right now. But I've put the name out there, I guess, before and like a blog post. But I quit after two days and because I was unhappy, I was absolutely miserable. You know, never in my life that I really like quit something like that. I just was not in a good place. Like, I just didn't feel like, okay, I've now gone to college. I've spent this four years. I have all these hopes and dreams about what I'm going to do.

And at the time, I wanted to work in sports. I wanted to be an agent I wanted to do like this. And then all of a sudden I wasn't doing what I was thought I was going to do and where my like, path was going. And I was really not thrilled. So after a couple of weeks after quitting, I decided, you know what, I'm gonna start my own business. At the very least to, you know, be something that can sustain me while I look for a full-time job and, you know, that's really what it became.

I thought about what I wanted to do. I settled on, oh, well I'll make these sunglasses, like nobody's really doing at this price point, like that lower level. You know, these types of sunglasses, I found suppliers and Taiwan and other folks in China help handling other things. And you know, it all came together. I think relatively quickly over the course of like three, six months, everything was sort of settled and I got product like the next spring, but I started that business.

It was store number 41,000 or so on Shopify. I remember they told me the number ones and then I had it written down. I don't know. Obviously now there's nearly 2 million merchants or maybe that's past 2 million at this point. And very quickly after starting that company, I started to help friend of a friend that's looking for help building their website. They're starting a business. Or eventually I started to gain real clients like people that I just didn't know through a random referral, like I sold services to and then Shopify invited me to their partner program in 2014 and then to their experts program three years later.

And then even fast forward to the spring of 2020, Shopify plus finally brought a consulting arm into their partner program where typically they've reserved that program over the years to app developers and to large-scale agencies where, you know, many many businesses that are out there that are looking for something more than entry level guidance, but don't have a quarter of a million dollars for a new website. That's where folks can turn to folks like myself, like in my situation, folks with small teams or, you know, solo operators who have that stamp of approval from Shopify that can, that can work with them.

But yeah, starting that business ultimately kind of set the table for everything and anything that I do today, with Ben Zettler, I was fortunate to actually to sell the sunglasses company in 2018. So it was acquired four years ago. It's sold to a guy that actually became a client for a few other businesses that he's involved in. And also during that time, and this is one of the unique things about what I do.

Three key areas e-commerce brands need to focus on

Ben Zettler: I should pause and mention, like to go back just to your first question of what has been Zettler digital and what do we do. I'm a consultant. And while my name is on the business, I do have a team that I have working with me and with my clients across three key areas of e-commerce that the three things that I've learned from my experience with, with Brooke tide and then I'll get into something else in a second, that's also relevant to it.

But the three things that I've found that it takes any e-commerce business that needs to be operating a certain level with these areas to have success. So one of course is their website. So we'll help folks with these more simple projects. What we'll say of setting up a Shopify website on a new theme or something that is much more intensive, like custom development of a new theme or certain elements, or creating some sort of custom function or conversion rate optimization or SEO or anything that is website specific.

That's one key area. And this is not in any particular order. This is like a sort of a tripod in the way that each of these three things kind of hold up the whole system. So the second is in customer acquisition via paid advertising. So I am a Facebook business preferred partner, which really just means that my clients spend enough money.

So Facebook and Instagram advertising is very much a part of what I do as well as Google advertising, Pinterest ads, TikTok, like really all things. And then the third key area is in customer retention and customer relationship management, which is where I bucket email and text marketing. I am a Klaviyo platinum partner, so that's, you know, up there, I guess, in their partner platform. 

Brand side experience

Ben Zettler: I've worked with over a hundred clients on Klaviyo in the last two years. And I also bucket organic social, constant strategy there as well. Now that takes me back to the other point. I wanted to bring up one of the unique things about my experience in being a service provider to any e-commerce merchants though, I primarily do work with folks on Shopify is that I have what I typically call brand side experience.

So I started my own company on Shopify. I learned the ins and outs of the platform. I got to understand what it took ultimately to build a business, which was, was built pretty heavily on influencer marketing and are pretty exclusively exclusively about it. But the other side of my brand experience that I can bring to the table when I'm working with folks is having worked at a large scale e-commerce company for a long time.

So in 2014, you know, while having brooktied, like what I mentioned before, you know, being not a stop gap solution, but something to sustain me while I was looking for full-time work, I eventually found a job at a PR firm for about five, six months in New York city. And I left that in January, 2014 to work at Steiner sports. Steiner sports was the largest autograph sports memorabilia company of its kind in the world for about 30 years.

ben zetller and mark cuban

And they were actually bought out by fanatics people and talking to the fanatics name, more prominently. They were bought out two, two and half years ago, which is when I took the consulting work full time. But, during my time there I was the first employee of the company hired with a specific dedication to social and digital marketing.

And so that's where I got a lot of the boots on the ground tactical experience to understand what it took to garner engagement, create a community, you know, the things, all the web three things that people are talking about now of community and, you know, building, brand evangelists and all of that. Like that's all still there, like at any point for any business at any, any point in time. But, we had 50,000 cumulative followers when I first started there. And within my first two and a half years, we grew that to over two and a half million cumulative followers across LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, properties for the main brands, properties for the CEO brand Steiner.

And also through like many various partnerships that we had, like with the New York Yankees and the Nixon Rangers and our retail location and yeah, two and a half million great, sexy number. That's why I say it. I say that on here, like I say to clients, when I talk about like cert my services experience, but the biggest thing ultimately is that we turn social into a legitimate lead generation and sales tool for the business we were doing, like anywhere from 15 to 20% of total online revenue per year directly referred via social.

But then it was also fueling other areas of the business. You know, email marketing, for example, in the memorabilia is pretty massive because you think, okay, higher average order value, typically collectors tend to be, tend to skew a little bit older. They are more used to email as a selling channel. And so email made up about 50% of our online revenue and we doubled our engaged user base, over a roughly two three-year period via social, via, you know, giveaways and advertising. And so my role there expanded pretty rapidly into overseeing, not just social, but paid advertising and affiliate marketing and email marketing, and eventually our entire e-commerce operation.

We actually were on a custom built platform for the website and how to lead a re-platforming over to Shopify plus. And yeah, then I had been waiting to take my consulting work full time. After I had built up a decent portfolio, you know, on the side, and Brandon Steiner said to me, you know, we're getting bought out so you can, you know, kind of stick around, get your San Francisco on your way.

And that's sort of how it shook out.

Then this was June of 2019 is when I took Ben settler digital kind of all in jumped into the pool, and decided to move forward with that. And it's funny, like I remember in those days, having some conversations with folks that I know, like kind of in the Shopify world, some really good partners of mine that I've developed nice relationships with over the years. And one of them offered me a job. Like the day that you heard about me leaving and there was maybe like five seconds where it was like, eh, should I like, should I do it? And then I told him no, and he's like, all right, good decision. And he was right. I mean, it's been the best decision ever. Like I said before, my goal was to be able to work from home, which I got, and that was six months pre pandemic. And, you know, really have control over my day-to-day and be able to really just do whatever I want with this, which has been excellent. I've had a lot of fun.

Joseph: So far consulting is it's one of those positions that I think a lot of people dream about, because it sounds like not exactly labor intensive, you're hopping on a call and you get to share advice and knowledge with others. But I think the challenge with consulting is making sure that you're at the top of your game and that you're paying careful attention to what changes in the market so that your advice and your experience never goes out of and never goes out of date, not even by a couple of weeks.

And I think one of the advantages to your operation is with the BZDM is, by having a direct relationship with clients and working with. You know, continuing to study the market, understand what's going on. It makes for the consulting side, it retains your own confidence as well. So yes, you're continuing to speak from a place of authority.

Ben Zettler: Yeah. You know, it's interesting that you say that one of the things I've actually been thinking about recently is I may have a little bit of a branding problem and why I say that is, yeah. I call myself a consultant, but between myself and my team, we're very much tacticians as well.

So when we're working with clients, like we're building that website. We're not just telling you how to build that website or we're running your Facebook ads. We're not just telling you how to run your Facebook ads or the same thing across like any services. But yeah, no, you're absolutely right.

Like when it comes to, you know, helping folks and steering them in the right direction, you know, based on not just the experience that you have, but also what's happening in the market. Yeah. You have to stay to some degree really on top of everything that's happening and what are the tools, what are the technologies out there?

Sometimes it's funny, like, I'll get a question from a client, like if I've recommended a certain app or something like that, to help them with anything, it could be anything like on their other store or where they're advertising. Why don't you give us before I was like, well, they're new. They just started. And I started with one client a bit working. Great. So I made the recommendation to you and, and so things are constantly always changing. And that's a good thing, but yeah, you absolutely have to stay on top of it for sure.

What is social selling?

Joseph: Now we've been doing this podcast for quite a few episodes. There were like 150 episodes that we have not talked about this. So first of all, you're gonna have to give us the one to one. Now off the bat, like a social selling, is this part of a longer process where something has to happen first before you get into it, or is this something that people can do directly to cold traffic?

Ben Zettler: Are you talking about like organic social? 

Joseph: I'm going to assume that it's organic. I don't know if there's a paid component of it, but our view, our perspective of it would have been yeah. The organic side. 

Ben Zettler: Yeah. It's interesting. That's sort of in a way, like the holy grail of what so many companies are looking for. Like, they want to be able to amplify their reach and grow their following and get more sales and do all of these things. And hey, if we can just do all that organically and not have to pay anything for it, then great. For any sort of matured e-commerce business, everybody has a pay strategy.

You're putting out a certain level of spend at whatever level that is ultimately, across social channels across, you know, Google and should be a very big element of any business. But of course, like if you can, like I mentioned before, like build some level of a community or conversation around not just the products that you offer, but the ideas that your products speak to then yeah, you can have and build and sustain that community. And you can use that as a way to drive actual traffic to your site and get people to actually convert.

So let's talk about at Steiner, like when I was the day-to-day tactician on our Instagram page and on the Facebook page and on Twitter and on everything else. So we did a lot of different things ultimately to sell on social. And that was anything from live video shows that we would do the CEO to showcase memorabilia and what's this product worth and have to take call-ins and like literally set up like a radio show.

We made like a studio in the office. We took out an empty office. We did podcasts, we did video interviews with athletes. We did all of these things in some cases like direct selling. Hey, we're on this live video. We're talking about this thing. That's this price that is lower than it's ever been before and there's X amount and go buy it.

And that stuff worked all the time, but it only worked because we had gotten to a point where we build out a certain level of community of yeah. Having those interviews and giving people access to athletes. And, you know, the things that they're sort of interested in that they could, you know, have fun with at the end of the day or on our Instagram page, like doing a lot of like poll questions and engagement and, you know, giving stuff away and doing things that would take what, what was nothing at the time to over it was like at our peak, like 160,000 followers on that page specifically.

So if you can do that, if you can to some degree, like build community, meaning post content that users are interested in and will engage with whether that means, you know, like so much of social media now is like, you know, the stuff that goes viral is just like the funny names or like the witty thing or something like that. And that's not necessarily what that means. Like that stuff works sure. But even just catering to people's interests.

ben zettler and shaq

So in our cases, sports fans, interests, what are they interested in? They're interested in like, debate about sports and you know, what, what are opinions they're interested in? Like, okay, if Shaq is in our office, know, we can show pictures of Shaw, like, you know, signing a thousand size 22 shoes. And like one of our guys there, his name was Matt. Shaq, literally shoulder pressing him in the middle of an autograph signing, like just doing like cool things like that, that you literally would not get anywhere else.

And those are the things that for us, that made it easier ultimately to garner engagement. And then the next time that we've got a new product that we want to sell or something that we're putting on a cool discount or running a sale, whatever it is people would respond to it because we respond positively because they know that we've got a certain authority in space because they sort of know the intention of the content.

So they are not turned off by constantly being bombarded with sales oriented messaging. And that's sort of how it worked and how it went. And then we just did that consistently for, in my case, you know, the five and a half years that I was there it's kind of like the Gary V model of, you know, like he taught, what is it, the dollar 80 strategy or the 2 cent?

Yeah, well, like the idea that you can have like a singular piece of content that you can then stretch into other things. So like if we had an interview with somebody like if it was like Bob Knight, for example, like if Brandon did an interview with Bob Knight and then we could get a video Bob Knight, you know, thrown a chair in our office, like we can take like the YouTube interview, you get the long form, you get something else that you're putting on Twitter.

You have something else you're putting on Instagram. You do that long enough and hundreds of hundreds of enough times enough players like Ben. Okay. The next year, like, hey, remember when we did this a year ago, like it just creates this train that just keeps kind of rolling. Yeah. And I worked out that was great.

Which social media platform you should prioritize

Joseph: Was there a hierarchy to which platforms, which social platforms were more important to your audience? I would imagine this might change from niche to niche, like the say, putting all your resources into making a YouTube content long form video content. So then that can be edited and extracted clips so that it, can I go onto the more bite-sized platforms or like, what was the way that you prioritize the platforms?

Ben Zettler: For everybody, it's to some degree different based on who's your audience.

Like where, where are your people? Um, and you know, what are the lowest barriers to entry at the time for growth? So in our case, it was kind of twofold, like on the Instagram side of things for you, like TikTok didn't exist yet.

So, you know, on the Instagram side of things, Instagram was in, like the sort of growth phase that Tiktok is now, or even the growth phase that TikTok was like two years ago. I'd say where they're adding hundreds of millions of users a month or tens of millions of users. So it's making like growth. I don't wanna use the word easy, but if again, you have that consistency, you can get even through not doing like crazy, like giveaways or buying fake followers, you can get 10,000 followers in a month, you know, relative in a relatively straightforward.

Now let's think about the business. Let's think about who's the typical customer of that business. Our average order value. What can somebody afford Instagram? Okay. Teenagers, early twenties. Are people going to buy a 200, 300, 400, $500 sign baseball? Not a lot of cases. Certainly over time that developed there, but for in that case specifically Facebook was tremendous, even though Facebook wasn't adding the tens of millions of users a month and was viewed and still kind of is like, as the platform that people don't use very much anymore, but yet people are still there.

And so yeah, video content on Facebook. And when they released, live video capabilities, we jumped on that right away. The first live video we ever posted it snowed. And I was home working from home. And the only thing you could only do it from your phone at the time. So I took my phone and then I just put on our website, we put on like a Mariana or there are ref photo up for sale. And I just put like a five second live video on my phone showing that because live videos at the time, when, as a notification to everybody that followed the page.

So we got an insane amount of visibility from like some super low quality content. But just knowing what the capabilities were of the tools that you're working with. 

Joseph: I want to also know about, I was like, so there was no prior notification for the audience that you were going to go live like you just went live. And then based on that? 

Ben Zettler: At the time, it varied, it progressed very differently where you could, it could be like you could hook into like, you know, actual cameras. And that's what we often do with our studio. And you can schedule live sessions and you can do all that. But this was like our page got the live capability. We could do it from a phone and say like, hey, we're live. And then yeah, that's kinda how it went. 

Joseph Ianni
Joseph Ianni

Debutify is the easiest way to launch and scale your eCommerce brand.

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