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Just over two years ago, I launched an online brand called Ambr Eyewear alongside my girlfriend, Sacha. After suffering from terrible eye strain and headaches during my day job, I was surprised to find immense relief from cheap blue light blocking glasses from Amazon. However, the glasses were built poorly, were very ugly and turned everything orange. 

Our “eureka!” moment came when Sacha, a designer, suggested we create quality blue light glasses that “actually looked cool” and didn’t affect color perception — a simple idea that turned out to a fruitful one. We’d just had a baby, so nights out were replaced by branding, designing, sourcing, and all the other steps needed to create a product. Friends and family became impromptu models and photographers. 

After a number of months researching and prototyping the perfect product, we launched a small line on a homemade website from our couch in Dublin. I remember thinking how delightful it’d be if we recouped our $2,000 initial investment.

Fast forward to February 2020, Ambr Eyewear has almost hit the $1M mark in revenue and has customers in nearly 80 countries. We’ve done this by carefully reinvesting the money we made from that initial batch of 100 glasses. To date, it’s just the two of us and we haven’t taken on any outside investment.

Dan and Sacha

I like to think that our brand is an excellent example of what you can achieve on a shoestring budget. I’m going to share, in close to chronological order, what we did to successfully build our direct-to-consumer (D2C) brand. You don’t always need venture capital or wealthy relatives to succeed!

In this article:
Product Is Everything
Selling the Story
Creating Visibility
Content
Authority
Affiliate Marketing vs. Influencer Marketing
Better Visuals, Better Ads
Target Intent With PPC
Internationalization
Bridge the Gap Between Digital and Physical

Product Is Everything

You’d be surprised by how many brands fall at the first hurdle. Your website and branding might be fantastic and you might get a bunch of orders to begin with, but without a great product you won’t generate the all-important first impression that affects your business positively. 

We want all of our customers to open their packages and think, “Wow, these are way better than I expected.” Three main aspects contribute to that feeling:

  • Quality of the product itself: Not only must the item be fit for purpose, but it needs to exude the impression of durability. 
  • The unboxing experience: There’s something that makes receiving a parcel much more exciting than buying something in a store. For Ambr, it’s the bells and whistles of a branded box, embossed hard-case, microfiber cloth, and a signed card from myself and Sacha thanking the customer for choosing us. It’s these little touches that live long in the memory of the customer.
  • The price point: Rather than trying to squeeze the maximum price possible for the product, consider instead the benefits of a price that pleasantly surprises the customer. My thoughts were that I’d rather sell five pairs of glasses at $55 each than to sell one pair of glasses for $100. 

Once these three boxes are ticked, coupled with a seamless purchasing process and after-sales service, you’ll reap the benefits that go along with a better than expected first impression.

Selling the Story

Free press is one of the most powerful marketing tools a budding brand can get. Think hard about your company, your story, and your product — is there anything engaging that will pique the interest of a journalist? Here are a few angles that tend to get the attention of journalists:

  • Innovative product or process: You don’t always have to be the next Thomas Edison. Media interest in your brand can also come from being the first to bring the product or process to your market too.
  • Social or environmentally conscious: Are you doing something innovative that also helps the planet.
  • Overcoming adversity: A backstory that’s both inspiring and emotive will always garner attention.

Once you’ve crafted your story, email outreach is where you need to invest your hours, discovering the names of journalists and building spreadsheets of their details with tools like Muck Rack and Email Checker

Ambr Eyewear quickly made coverage in several local and national news sites, capturing the interest of the vast amount of tech workers in Ireland, and the story of young parents battling to build a brand appealed to the emotions. 

Not only does press result in heightened brand awareness and referral traffic, the inbound links it generates from authoritative websites are, in my opinion, one of the single most important factors in a D2C brand’s long-term digital marketing strategy.

Creating Visibility

Building consistent organic traffic has been my main focus throughout the whole journey. My feelings are that, except in rare cases, pay-per-click (PPC) advertising alone isn’t sustainable for a D2C brand with limited resources. An unexpected spike in cost-per-acquisition (CPA) could see you reach for the panic button. That’s why building a solid and consistent foundation of organic traffic should be the #1 priority. Alternative sources of traffic like social and paid search should supplement organic traffic, rather than vice versa.

Content

Using tools like SEMrush and Google Keyword Planner, I identified our primary target keywords. These are keywords that would match the product most closely — blue light glasses, computer glasses, blue light blocking glasses, and their close variants. We had initially referred to our product as “screen glasses,” however looking at the intersection of ranking difficulty and search volume, “computer glasses” turned out to be the primary keyword with the most potential.

Before launching your site, it’s important to do some research and find out what keywords people are using to find your product. Next, I continued adding to the spreadsheet with secondary or long-tail keywords that would bring higher-funnel traffic to the website compared to lower-funnel primary keywords. These are words like, “Is blue light bad?” “What is blue light?” “Does blue light cause headaches?” etc. 

There’s a lot of work involved in creating the pages that are going to target all these keywords, but its long term value is undeniable. To create pages that have the potential to rank, ensure your metadata, heading tags, and URLs are all optimized.

Authority

Great content, well-organized structure, and by-the-book page optimization aren’t enough to reach the summit of search engine results pages (SERPs) — it’s merely the foundation. What comes next, and what should always be in the back of any long-term planner’s mind, is links. 

Why are links so important? Well, to simplify things, links from authoritative and reputable sites give signals to Google that your website is also a trustworthy site, increasing your ability to rank for your target keywords.

Here you can see how links to ambreyewear.com have increased over time:

And the subsequent growth in organic traffic:

Every month I challenge myself to build at least five quality links to the website. Below are some examples of where I’ve had success with this:

  • Press/Media mentions
  • Guest posting on high-authority websites: (I’m not writing this for free, you know!)
  • Collaborations: Partnering with other brands for events, limited edition launches, etc. will most likely earn you a link on their page.
  • Ego-baiting: Basically, this is the act of encouraging an expert or influencer to link to your content because they’re featured. 
  • Testimonials: If you’ve used the services of another company, don’t be afraid to reach out with positive testimonials to be featured on their site. It’s a win-win for both involved.
  • Public appearances: Podcasts, conferences, radio, television — put your face and your brand anywhere that will have you.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully, it’ll help to get the ideas flowing.

Affiliate Marketing vs. Influencer Marketing

What I’ve learned, and it really did surprise me, was just how minuscule the conversion rate was from influencer marketing. Compare this to the extortionate fees being charged by influencers, and the numbers just don’t add up. 

I felt that the very short lifespan of posts, particularly Stories, ultimately made the endorsements easily forgettable in the eyes of the consumer compared to a far more effective and sustainable alternative to influencer marketing: affiliate marketing.

Rather than pay substantial one-off fees for a sponsored post and praying for a positive return, affiliate marketing allows you to pay a commission per sale generated. Affiliate marketing allows you to create two types of enduring content:

  • Brand ambassadors: With affiliate marketing partnerships, influencers become brand ambassadors. Their ongoing interaction with your brand is far more likely to generate trust than a one-time plug.
  • Publisher articles: These were a game-changer for Ambr Eyewear. Giant online publishers treat affiliate marketing as an essential revenue stream. We were lucky enough to feature in pieces like “Best Places to Buy Glasses Online” on websites like Forbes, CNN, Huffington, and Mashable. These articles are permanent and are keyword-led, meaning they’ll continue to bring traffic to your site long after they’ve been published. I recommend the Skimlinks network for achieving results like this.

Better Visuals, Better Ads

By the time we really started investing in the brand’s visual content, we were about 18 months down the line. We had a steady stream of direct traffic and organic traffic. Affiliate marketing was also contributing very positively to sales. It was time to take things up a notch and give the brand a nice polish.

We finally invested in professional photography and modeling (about time, I know), and the feeling of professionalism that exuded through our website and communications was unmistakable. I initially had reservations about using expensive photography and models, thinking that hobbyist friends would suffice, but I was totally wrong and should’ve done this from the beginning.

Around this time, we also decided to partner with AdRoll for our remarketing activities. We had previously only sporadically invested in remarketing — solely through social media — and hadn’t seen great results. My experience was mostly in organic traffic generation, and hiring someone to do it wasn’t quite feasible. 

AdRoll offered us an omnichannel remarketing platform, allowing us to advertise across social media and the Google Display Network. It was a big step forward for us knowing that both our website and external communications not only looked great, but that the AdRoll platform was using these assets to bring visitors back to the site to convert.

Target Intent With PPC

In short: Rather than starting at the top of the funnel and working your way down, start at the bottom of the funnel and work your way up.

Who’s more likely to buy a pair of our glasses —  the person on the bus flicking through their friend’s Instagram story? Or the person who directly typed in “buy blue light glasses” into Google? I would bet on the latter. Some brands will burst out of the blocks with flashy Facebook ads and spend a considerable amount of money with a hopeful “spray and pray” type approach when the right people are already there waiting in Google search results.

For us, when budget became available to spend on PPC advertising, it was a no-brainer to concentrate on targeting high-intent keyword searches, rather than top-of-the-funnel social ads. We’ve now started activating consistent Facebook and Instagram campaigns. This is two-fold:

  • We wanted our website, reputation, and content to have developed to a point where our offering was highly convincing. 
  • The risk of cold social ads is high. We wanted to wait until we were in a position to experiment and absorb wasted media spend.

Internationalization

It had taken almost two and a half years, but we had built a self-sufficient ecosystem of organic, paid, affiliate, direct, and social traffic. However, sales were low in non-English speaking countries. Using my trusted sidekicks, SEMrush and Ahrefs, I got back to spreadsheets and keyword research. It was striking that there were significant and growing volumes of searches for “lunettes anti lumière bleue,” “gafas luz azul,” and “blaulichtfilter brille” — blue light glasses in French, Spanish and German, respectively. We began the process of translating our entire website into these languages.

A vital piece of advice for anyone publishing multilingual websites is to include “hreflang tags.” These snippets of code tell Google what language the page is in and also which country it’s targeting.

Bridge the Gap Between Digital and Physical

The icing on the cake for us over the last couple of years has been the success we’ve forged in the offline world. While I agree that the future belongs to inherently digital brands, aligning your brand with reputable retailers does wonders for awareness and trust. 

We had confidence in the product, and the data to prove that our product and brand had a lot of potential. The hard part was getting into the hands of the right people. We started with our first distribution deal with Brown Thomas in Dublin, followed by a pop-up store in Dublin City. We designed it ourselves to match our vision and were hugely proud of the results.

Our friends at local café Happy Out served delicious barista coffee, there was a lounge area for work or study and, of course, a very “Instagrammable” interior. Commercially, it was a great success; but indirectly, there were the social shares, the media mentions, and of course, the links! Sitting outside the shop on a cold Christmas day watching customers go in and out, it felt like Ambr Eyewear had finally arrived.

Dan Nugent
Author

Dan Nugent is a Co-Founder of Ambr Eyewear.