Jacob Zuppke on AutoPets’ DTC origins, and embracing the new creator model
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If you’re a cat parent, you’re probably familiar with the (rather unfortunate) necessity of having a litter box inside your home. In addition to being an item you want to be tucked out of the way, traditional litter boxes require you to scoop the litter by hand, which is an entirely...unpleasant task.
Manual litter boxes are outdated, unpleasant, and gross, but they’re still so widely used that many people don’t even think of them as being an inherent inconvenience, even though they most certainly are. Bottom line: traditional litter boxes are a pain, but often thought of by cat parents as being an unavoidable one.
However, I’ve learned that inconveniences classified as ‘unavoidable’ are often possible to mitigate or simplify with innovation and technology.
Solving an inconvenient problem
Sometimes, creating a sought-after product in business means finding a solution to something that the majority of people might not even have identified as a problem. This is where Litter-Robot comes in, the highest-rated automatic self-cleaning litter box in the world, invented in 1999 by Brad Baxter.
Six years back, after witnessing Brad’s phenomenal product innovation with Litter-Robot, I joined his team to help with digital marketing—eventually becoming Brad’s right-hand man. At that point in my career, I’d taken a buyout from my first business (a digital marketing agency), realizing what I really wanted to do was focus on growing one brand rather than many.
That one brand ended up being AutoPets.
As the years went on, my work with AutoPets continued to expand. Eventually, I took on the role of President, COO, and Board Member of AutoPets, and since then I’ve been helping push Litter-Robot into more and more markets around the world, working to make the future of pet parenting better.
Litter-Robot’s origins: the founding of AutoPets
Litter-Robot is only one of the automatic pet products and refined pet accessories that make up the roster of parent company AutoPets, but it’s the one we’re most well-known for.
In 1999, Brad knew he wanted to build a business around a product, and his inspiration for inventing Litter-Robot was spurred by the two cats he had inherited. Having directly experienced the inconvenient chore of sifting dirty litter out by hand, he set out to build a better litter box experience (for cat and human, I might add).
That year, Brad worked on several different automated litter box prototypes until he came up with what is now the foundational piece of the Litter-Robot you see today. The method he invented uses a process of sifting the dirty litter from the clean litter as opposed to the more commonly seen raking method.
By the year 2000, Litter-Robot was launched, and since then we’ve added to the Litter-Robot product line three major times, continually working on innovative updates and automation.
DTC from day one
From the beginning, Brad realized the best way to reach a consumer with a large, expensive product was online via DTC marketing. In the year 2000, paid search was becoming a thing, and there were very few non-traditional players in the online pet space. Because of this, Brad knew he had a huge opportunity to reach consumers seeking litter box solutions with search.
DTC has worked well for us over the years and we’ve stuck with it, selling directly to the consumer through our own ecommerce platform. Now available in the US, Canada, EU, and the UK, we’re launching soon in China as well as in several other countries through distribution ecommerce partners.
Choosing to remain a DTC brand has given us the kind of control over the product education and customer service we want so we can guarantee our customers a successful experience with the product. It also allows us to continue personal and connective relationships with the pet parents who love and use our products.
From the start, keeping everything on our own unique and hands-on terms has been important.
Our marketing strategy: paid search, social, and influencers
While most of our early media dollars early on were spent on paid search, Brad jumped right on social when Facebook came out. We had a product people loved, and Brad saw that word-of-mouth was a powerful marketing tool, made even more powerful by a visual platform like Facebook.
When I joined the company in 2015, there were about five thousand people a month searching for Litter-Robot. Today, over 200,000 people search for Litter-Robot each month. We’ve also grown our search volume from 12,000 to 80,000 a month for the keyword phrase automatic litter boxes.
We carry the same mindset into our advertising and marketing strategies today: to invest in tomorrow’s customer, not just today’s. We do this by placing our marketing focus on educating people on what the Litter-Robot can do to improve their lives rather than solely focusing on the immediate conversion.
Whether they’ve recognized their current litter box as a problem or a chore, the next time they have a problem with it, they’ll think of us as a solution to that problem. Then, the conversion.
Creator marketing: partnering with social celebrities
In 2015, influencers/creators were called social celebrities. At the time, we were getting ready to launch our Litter-Robot 3.
I had a marketing epiphany: What if we partnered with all these people who were captivating my attention (and millions of others) all over Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube?
This was the origin of our Twenty-Five Days of Christmas with Litter-Robot. We partnered with twenty-five different influencers, all with an audience of at least one million people, to give away twenty-five Litter-Robots.
It paid off: the engagement we saw when we started running this campaign was incredible. We had so much social chatter happening we were hands-on the entire month of December. Before the giveaway, our website traffic peak was 30,000 visitors in one month, and on the day the influencers announced the giveaway, we had 30,000 visitors all in one day.
In total, 330,000 people entered the giveaway that first year. We hit a new record high in sales that December, jumping 40% in sales. The next year we grew by 80% in overall revenue.
To put this into perspective, in 2015 AutoPets was a fifteen-year-old company, one that had consistently grown by 10-15% for many years prior. To go from 10% to 80% in one year was no small feat.
It’s important to note that while we did nurture the emails we collected from the giveaway entries, doing a couple of drip campaigns throughout the year, the massive amount of growth we saw that year was due to partnering with creators. The exposure they gave us was unparalleled.
Because of this success, we’ve run this giveaway every year since then, adjusting the specifics of it here and there. We’re now up to 500,000+ entries per year.
Embracing the new creator model: pay-to-play
That first influencer/creator marketing campaign was a huge Aha! moment for us as a company. It was when we fully realized the opportunity that existed with influencers. We saw the future we could build by educating people through brand partners telling their passionate and committed audiences our story.
Since 2015, we’ve been heavily invested in creator marketing, but our approach has evolved from what it was six years ago. In today’s world, influencer marketing is not new, and because of that, we've had to be more creative with it.
Having shifted to a pay-to-play influencer model, the expectation from influencers is no longer simply access to free products. Influencers are sought after and they make good money to promote specific products. Offering them more is a necessity.
Our new strategy has centered on deepening the partnerships with the influencers we work with, culminating in content creation they can then promote to their audiences. Having already built a special presence within the cat community, we’ve focused on expanding outside of it when it comes to the creators we choose to partner with.
Todrick Hall: we don’t scoop
This brings me to our partnership with Todrick Hall, one that led to us making a music video with him called We Don’t Scoop.
Right before he adopted his now three cats, Todrick reached out to us, having recently bought a Litter-Robot. We started our partnership out with him by making small videos here and there, and they got so much engagement that we knew we needed to do something bigger, resulting in the We Don’t Scoop music video: a video that has now amassed upward of five million views.
Todrick is representative of the strategy behind our current approach to influencer marketing. He has a personality people embrace, he has a passionate following, and he speaks from the heart. We wanted to partner with someone who had a voice, who could break through the clutter and produce high-quality, fun, and unique content with us.
And lucky us, that’s exactly who we found in Todrick.
Tips on building a brand around a product, marketing it, and approaching partnerships
Building a company and figuring out your marketing strategy is tough work. It requires a lot of time and energy, so being interested and invested in what you're doing is important.
It took me a business venture buyout to discover that my interests weren’t just growing a business through digital marketing, but that I wanted to focus on the businesses’ entire growth. My passion extended beyond the digital piece, to operations as a whole, and I knew I needed to be fully immersed in the entirety of a business’ operations to be fully fulfilled, not what I originally thought. o whatever it is, listen to where your passion is leading you and follow that urge.
Eventually, my passion led me to a job that I couldn’t be more delighted and fulfilled by. So here are four tips from me to you on what I’ve learned over the last six years growing AutoPets with Brad into what it is today.
~Try to solve a problem with your product that people might not even know is a problem yet. Be innovative. Find a solution to something that can make someone’s life that much easier. Find a solution to something that will make your life easier.
~Make sure the product you create is fantastic and worthy of the hype you want it to garner. Hype will only last so long without something solid to back it up. Everyone can copy your product but it’s much harder to copy a great business inclusive of fanatical customer service, memorable marketing, great engineering, leading to an incredible product!
~Invest in educating the customer of tomorrow, not just the customer of today. Trust your marketing intuition and don’t only make marketing decisions based on the hard data–that can result in shortsighted decisions that prioritize your sales today rather than tomorrow. Sometimes the results you want to see won’t be immediate, but they will come if you’re consistent and you have a solid product with memorable marketing. Be patient and strategic.
~Be authentic, creative, and original in your approach to influencer marketing. Find people who, regardless of if they reside in the exact industry your brand is, represent the core parts of your messaging and fit with the people you want to market to.
Looking ahead: the future of AutoPets
When I think about what I’m most proud of throughout my time with AutoPets, it’s the empowered team culture I’ve had the privilege of building with Brad. We have about three hundred full-time employees, all of whom have the opportunity to shape their own careers as well as the company.
There are so many exciting new adventures coming up for AutoPets–not only will we be releasing new product lines for cats and dogs soon (be on the lookout for some stylish pet furniture and beyond), but we are also launching our re-brand shortly and greatly expanding our manufacturing capabilities.
As for our marketing direction, we’ve been investing in broadcast television throughout 2020 and plan to continue that this year, working on creating content specifically for broadcast. I’ve always had an affinity for infomercials and products sold on TV, so I couldn’t be more excited for the direction we’re headed in.
As a whole, I feel lucky and grateful to be a part of the AutoPets family. Brad and I have made it a priority to build a positive and encouraging work environment, and I think because of that empowered work culture we have limitless potential when it comes to the ability to evolve our automated pet solutions and design products that will shape the future of pet care.