I met Steven Sashen, one of the founders of Xero Shoes, at a recent networking event. There were 5 or 6 of us random strangers standing around trying to break the ice with conversation starters. Steven and I got onto the topic of email marketing, and he told me how his opt-in rate increased by as much 3,000 subscribers. PER MONTH.
That’s the moment our heads turned, and Steven began holding court by telling us the best story of the evening. And I had a front-row seat. (Psst, if you want to make friends at an event, share something BIG that people would love to know like Steven did).
In the middle of the story, the networking host picked the worst time to make an announcement. Steven had to stop before he could reveal the secret of how he’s getting so many high-quality email subscribers who are buying.
Unfortunately, Steven had to dash out before the announcement was over. Fortunately for you, I caught up with him to find out how he’s hitting it out of the park with email marketing. In the following interview, Steven graciously shares:
- his opt-in strategy
- why email is his most important marketing channel and least expensive way to get in front of consumers
- the optimization he did on his product pages that increased revenue by nearly $200,000
Mary: Steven, tell me about Xero Shoes.
Steven: I like to say to people, “At the end of the day, when you’ve been on your feet, do your feet feel better than they did at the beginning of the day? If they don’t, you’ve been wearing the wrong shoes. It’s not your fault because footwear has been made wrong for the last 50 years.”
If you look at the way your feet are shaped, you’ll find that your shoes aren’t shaped like your feet. That’s why your shoes aren’t comfortable.
The fundamental idea is your feet are supposed to bend, move, flex, and feel. You have a quarter of the bones and joints of your whole body in your feet and ankles. And more nerve endings than anywhere but your fingertips and lips. That’s not an accident.
We make shoes that let your feet work like feet are supposed to. The shoes are super flexible. They’re wide enough so your toes can spread. They’re really lightweight. The soles have enough protection, so you don’t have to worry about what you’re stepping on. But they also let you feel things from the ground, so your brain gets the feedback it needs to know how to use your whole body. We have casual and performance shoes and sandals that people use for everything from taking a walk, to running hundred+ mile ultra marathons.
How did you got started doing digital marketing?
I began shortly after I got my first computer in 1984, in the pre-internet days. I used the early bulletin board systems like the Well in San Francisco and Echo in New York. I was one of the first guys to sign up for AOL before they sent out a million CDs, and I had a Prodigy account. That’s when I got turned onto the idea of selling things online.
In 1992, I invented the industry standard word processing software for film and television writers. I was in the process of trying to market that software when I got hip to the idea of internet marketing and started doing some in 1993.
I was actually doing internet marketing before there were browsers, selling my software on IRC, Compuserve, AOL, and Prodigy. There were no browsers, no HTML in those very early days.
I figured out SEO early when it was easy. When it was literally all on-page stuff. In ‘93 and ‘94, I just optimized pages for keywords related to every infomercial product I could find. Just for fun. There was no way to sell them online. People weren’t doing that. I just wanted to own the traffic, and so I did. From having a business and watching the internet evolve, I figured stuff out.
Wow, you’ve seen the internet change quite a bit.
Yeah. In the early days, SEO was just about on-page factors and posting a few articles somewhere.
When we first met, we talked about email marketing so I’d like to continue that convo. Why did you start doing email marketing at Xero Shoes? What were you looking to get out of it?
I’ve been sending emails since I started marketing and email has always been the most important channel for any marketer that I’ve ever met. So it never occurred to me to not do it.
Why do you think it’s an important channel?
Well, people read email. End of story. Despite that, there are people out there saying kids today don’t read email. Those people don’t really know. I can see the open rates, and I know that kids read email.
Knowing that people read email, the challenge is competing with all the crap that people get and getting your email read. But people still read email.
The bigger thing is on a cost per send basis; it’s still the least expensive way to get in front of someone. Even if you don’t get in front of everybody, it’s still the best bang for your buck. By a long shot.
Do you think it’s a cheaper way to get in front of your prospect than social media or online advertising?
Absolutely. If you value your time and it’s worth more than $1/minute, then, yes. If you think about the customer journey, there are people who don’t know you, and you want to get to know them. Email is a great way of doing that because you can give them a series of emails where you’re letting them know who you are and what you do.
You can’t do that easily on social media. There’s a YouTube advertising product that kind of lets you do that. It shows someone a video and then the next one in a series, and then the next one, and so on.
It’s kind of like dripping out your videos.
Kind of. But it’s not necessarily as effective or as easy as email. And again, it’s more costly because even if all you’re doing is a video of you talking, then you have to edit it and post it. It still just takes more time, frankly.
There’s more you can control in an email than you can in a video. So again, in the customer lifecycle when you want someone to get to know you, email is an incredible way of doing that.
If you have existing customers, there are emails that have open rates in excess of 200%, on average. It’s your order and shipping confirmation emails.
What other things can you do where people are going to respond that well?
You can get the same kind of open rates with text messages. But an SMS can’t have as much content. In an email you can say, “Thanks for your order and here’s your information. By the way, here are some other products you might want to check out.”
There’s a lot more you can do on the email side that you can’t do on the SMS side. Even if you do SMS, you still want to do email.
Once people have purchased a product and you know what their behaviors are, you can engage with them at the right time in the right way, in a way that you just can’t do with other channels.
People love to talk up SMS or retargeting marketing. For me, if I get a text or Facebook message and if it’s not something I want to hear from someone I know, or someplace that I like, it’s all I can do not to throw my phone through the window. I don’t like being interrupted.
There are some marketers who say people don’t mind getting interrupted, but I’m iffy about that. I think interrupting people isn’t pleasant; it doesn’t create a good relationship in my opinion.
I first did a Facebook Messenger experiment by sending out a message to 800 people (who had messaged me previously) saying, “I just wanted to make sure you got the email that I sent about the fact that we’re letting people buy equity in our company.” I made the message very personal.
It didn’t occur to me that 600 of those 800 people would respond asking for more information. So I spent a week responding to those messages.
If you Messenger or SMS well, where it becomes something that is an actual conversation, it’s a time commitment. And it can be massive.
With SMS or Messenger, people expect an immediate response. The other advantage of email is that it’s asynchronous. It’s not happening in real time. Even if you invite people to respond back to you, they’re more forgiving if you don’t respond back to them in 2 seconds. That’s not the case with text messages.
Here’s another advantage to using email. You can collect a lot of data that you can’t collect any other way. About what people do and how they behave. What they do and don’t like. You can segment with email which you can’t do on other platforms that allows you to really understand your business, your products, and your customers better. It’s a really robust and inexpensive tool. Still to this day.
How do you get consumers to opt into your list?
When visitors leave our desktop website or enter our mobile site, they’re presented with a full-screen pop-up that says, “Do you want to win a $100 gift certificate?”
If they click No, the pop-up goes away. If they click Yes, they go to a new screen where they can enter their email address to win. If they enter their address, they go to another page where they can get more entries and increase their chance of winning if they share the sweepstakes with other people, post it on their Facebook page, or do one of our other sharing activities.
Every month we give away $100. Since we started the sweepstakes, we’ve seen our email subscribers increase between 1,000 and 3,000 per month.
Wow. That’s a big increase.
Yeah. And more than that, it’s people who are actually engaged with our brand because they convert well.
Why do you think the sweepstakes is giving you good-quality leads? Do you think it’s because visitors are already interested in your product?
Correct. People aren’t coming to the site just to try to win the $100. I haven’t seen anyone posting anything that’s saying, “Hey, want to try to win $100? Go to the Xero Shoes site and fill out the form.”
And an exit-intent pop-up is way better in my opinion than an opt-in that shows up the moment you hit the site. That’s like asking visitors to “join our email list” before they’ve had any time to check out the site.
Unfortunately there’s no way to determine exit intent on mobile, so visitors see the pop-up when they enter.
I know you do a lot of testing and conversion rate optimization. Can you share an experiment that worked for you?
We added a Buy Now button next to our Add to Cart button and our conversion rate increased by 2.8% which increased revenue by nearly $200,000.
Buy Now takes them right to a shopping cart loaded with their product. From there they can check out and pay for their order.
I had a hunch that more often than not people only want to buy 1 pair of shoes. So I wanted to eliminate extra steps in the buying process for those people.
Surprisingly we tested bypassing the cart and taking people right to the payment page but that didn’t do well. I think our customers felt it was too pushy.
As you know digital marketing is always changing, tell me what you’ve learned recently?
I recently read a book by Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference. It’s about how Voss, a former hostage negotiator for the FBI, used counterintuitive strategies in his work and how marketers can too.
Here’s an example of a fundraising marketer who increased his conversion rate by 23% using Voss’ strategies to get people to say no instead of yes.
He used to ask these types of questions in his campaigns.
“Do you want to get Obama out of office? (Expected response) Yes.”
“Do you want to have more control over the democratic process? Yes.”
“Would you like to contribute to our campaign? Yes.”
Then he changed the questions to lead people to answer no.
“Do you think if things continue the way they’re still going, the economy is going to be better in a year? No.”
“Do you think that Republicans are doing enough right now to keep Obama out of office? No.”
“If you feel that way and you want to contribute to an organization that’s helping you achieve your goals, here’s a thing you can do.”
The basic premise is if you ask people questions that lead them to say yes, they feel like they’re being led on and they don’t like that. If you let them say no, they feel like they’re in control. Even though their no is a tacit yes.
It’s a really provocative book; you should check it out.
That’s a wrap. Thanks Steven for sharing these killer marketing tips and your fascinating history about internet marketing!
Steven Sashen and Xero Shoes
Steven is a serial entrepreneur who has never had a job. He was a former professional stand up comic, award-winning screenwriter, and a competitive sprinter — one of the fastest men over 55 in the country (maybe the fastest 55+ Jew in the world!).
He and his wife, Lena Phoenix, co-founded the footwear company Xero Shoes, creating “a MOVEMENT movement” which has helped hundreds of thousands of people Live Life Feet First with happy, healthy, strong feet in addictively comfortable footwear. Steven and Lena also appeared on Shark Tank, where they turned down a $400,000 offer from Kevin O’Leary.
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