How an Internet Bred eCommerce Fashion Retailer Leveraged Under-Priced Social Media Channels for Rapid Growth

In the world of e-commerce, the internet-bred fashion retailer Dolls Kill is killing it in regards to their marketing on social.

You’ve probably never even heard of Dolls Kill as they aren’t huge like some of their competitors in the retail world. But back in 2014, in only three years of operations, Inc. reported they generated $7.6 million in sales.

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In its 7th year, Dolls Kill elicited enough attention to raise $15 million from consumer-focused venture firm Maveron (owned by Starbucks CEO).

But that’s not all,

Dolls Kill is….

  • The 2,600th most followed account on Instagram with 2.6M followers (which grew from 55%-60% from the previous year)
  • Generating 3.8M website visitors monthly (of which 93% is organic)
  • Generating $8-10 million in sales.
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To figure out how Dolls Kill has grown so fast and been profitable from the start, I’ve looked at what they’ve executed well and broken these down into actionable tips so you can get inspired and take your business to the next level.

Tip #1: Understand your Values, Articulate them Concisely and Build your Tribe

Every successful entrepreneur has a theory or view of the world that he or she translates into their business.

As an entrepreneur, you’ve probably over-heard the vague but pertinent advice that in order to have a successful business you need to build a brand. And a brand is built on values.

You won’t get too much about Dolls Kills values from the ‘about’ section of their Facebook page as it pretty much just says “GRUNGE TECHNO BABY” seven times in a row.

But what I quickly understood is that they’re targeting a very niche audience. They’re tapping into growing youth subcultures that align under the umbrella of “just don’t give a f***. “

An interview with their CEO, Farahi (founder of Multivision which he sold for a small fortune) reveals the brands values. “The brand empowers girls to unleash [their] inner I don’t give a f***.” He continues by explaining “It allows her to express her individuality and be as loud as she wants to be.”

The youth subcultures which they target literally embody not giving a f***. Think Punk Rock, Goth, Grunge and Techno.

So, how did Dolls Kill so effectively translate the values of these subcultures into their brand?

Firstly, they have product lines that appeal directly to youth who belong to each of these subcultures. Secondly, their authentic approach to marketing and leveraging people who are and aspire to be of those subcultures allowed them to build a community organically.

Dolls Kill managed to brilliantly incorporate their fans into their marketing strategy. I’ll reveal this in tip #3.

Tip #2: Find and Fully Leverage the Medium to Communicate with your Tribe and Create a Cult-Like Following

I would argue that Instagram is by far the most critical medium Dolls Kill leveraged for their rapid growth.

Dolls Kill was very early to exploit Instagram and Facebook when social platforms were growing like wildfire. Undoubtedly they had the advantage of capitalizing on the platform when it wasn’t nearly as saturated as it is today.

But Instagram has massive value and potential and I would argue that Instagram ads are still under-priced as opposed to Facebook ads.

Marketer are quickly catching on. Instagram now has a billion monthly active users and is a significant source of revenue for Facebook that is projected to become their main revenue source 2020.

Apart from the significant contribution Instagram makes to Facebooks ad revenue (effectively Facebooks entire revenue), the acquisition also provided Facebook two extremely important, unquantifiable advantages that also benefit marketers leveraging Instagram:

  1. A reconnection with a younger demographic (primarily millennials)
  2. An elimination of Snapchats competition and usurping of their user base by cloning their features

Social networking sites continue to pop-up (think Musical.ly) and some smaller players continue to grow (think Pinterest). Where does your community live?

Tip #3: Sell Where your Community Lives

Instagram is one of the most effective sales channel for ecommerce businesses because:

  • It’s visual (impeccable for showcasing products)
  • Its users are engaged millennials (80% of users follow a brand)
  • Its users are making purchases (Instagram has the 2nd highest average order value out of all social channels)
  • Its continually adding new features that are commerce friendly (think of shoppable tags or the native payments IG is currently testing)

When I first began running ads for my eCommerce fashion brand two years ago, I started by advertising on both Facebook and Instagram.

I quickly noticed that my ads on Facebook were underperforming. Not only were they getting low engagement but also low conversions compared to the same ad that was being run on Instagram.

There could be multiple explanations for the underperforming ads on Facebook.

  • The demographic which I was targeting was between the ages of 14-28. This is the main demographic that are leaving Facebook in favor of Instagram.
  • My business was never very active on Facebook so It’s likely that users of Facebook had never seen or engaged with my content.

Whatever the reason, I decided to double-down on Instagram as I had found a clear winner.

Tip #4: Use Organic Means Before Paying to Play

From the start, Dolls Kill eschewed print and TV ads. Their smart founders were aware that in order to build a cult-following they needed to grow organically on platforms their tribe was already populating.

Only three years after they were founded did Dolls Kill start dabbling with Facebook Ads and experimenting with PPC ads on Google.

I routinely check the ads that the company is running on Facebook by checking the “Info and Ads” section on their Facebook page. Today, they’re often running multiple ads simultaneously and probably have much larger budgets allocated towards paid marketing.

However, their initial organic growth allowed them to be profitable from the very start by leveraging social commerce to generate sales with almost zero ad spend.

When I started my e-commerce business, I didn’t run any paid ads or push for sales until I had built a following of 2,000.

Sure, this is a tiny following. But the community was built organically and was much more inclined to engage and make purchases when I started running paid ads.

It must be mentioned that I did kick-start the community with ‘boosted’ (sponsored) content in order to build a following more quickly. But these posts were never about selling. They were about building a community so I put out content that established the values, the aesthetic and the overall vision of the brand.

I would suggest doing this if you have a small budget to allocate as Instagram has become much more saturated with content!

Tip #5: Use Influencers that are your Fans

Remember the subcultures that are the foundation for Dolls Kills values?

They managed to translate these seamlessly into a key influencer or “doll” (as they call them).

In other words, they have a real human that is actually a part of each of these subcultures in order to represent each of their product lines.

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What they managed to do so brilliantly is use their fans as influencers. As their CEO says “It’s a real girl. It’s authentic. We give the reins to these people to be themselves, whether in videos or the way we shoot product or editorial.”

Tip #6: Piggyback on the Growth of Players in Complementary Industries

In the age of lucrative events like Coachella, Burning Man and Lollapalooza, there is a huge opportunity to capitalize on festival fashion. It might seem like a poor business decision to sell event-specific outfits as trends tend to fizzle out. But almost all fashion brands (from fast fashion to luxury brands) are debuting festival collections.

One brand that capitalized on this earlier than anyone else was Dolls Kill. They made a killing by making eccentric, edgy fashion that caters to festival goers.

Dolls Kill found their niche in festival fashion and experienced fast growth as festivals like Coachella became massively mainstream. This month Coachella celebrated their 20th anniversary and unsurprisingly, Dolls Kill was one of the brands that had a stand and was selling merchandise directly to consumers.

But the secret to Dolls Kill success is that they found the sweet-spot by also selling clothing for everyday wear with just the right amount of edge.

Leverage the Medium to Build your Tribe

Not so long ago, you were born into a community and had to find your individuality. Today you’re born an individual and have to find your community.  

This couldn’t be more relevant for entrepreneurs. In order to actualize your individuality and your view of the world in a business, you need to build a tribe around your ideas and values.

Stefanos Bournias
Stefanos Bournias is a content marketing consultant that specializes in SaaS businesses. He's worked with start-up founders, content managers, and inbound marketers to deliver quality content that increases brand awareness, traffic, and qualified leads.

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