The Content-First Approach With John Roman

TLEP 48 | Content First Approach

 

“When you have content that performs well, do it again.”

 

Special guest John Roman led several successful sales organizations in the telecommunications and software space for almost a decade. Then, he began investing in companies predominately in the eCommerce arena, including BattlBox, where he now serves as Chief Executive Officer. On this episode, hear the story of BattlBox and how the subscription box company leads with content first approach (and community second). Discover how John became part of a Netflix series to take video to the next level. Learn about what social media platforms the brand prioritizes and how that’s evolved. Find out how BattlBox repurposes content into short-form videos. Get tips on working with influencers to promote products and what content performs best today. Uncover perspective on where to prioritize your advertising budget. Gain an understanding of how to evolve with the times and how to benefit from your community involvement.

 

Check out his blog for a look inside the minds of the best and brightest in the eCommerce industry: https://onlinequeso.com/

 

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The Content-First Approach With John Roman

Our special guest is John Roman, who has an interesting background I’m excited to get into. It started after leading all these successful sales organizations in the telecommunication and software space for many years. At this point, John began investing in companies, predominantly in the eCommerce arena, including BattlBox, where he now serves as CEO. We’re going to talk about BattlBox, content and community, and Netflix. Lots of great questions are coming up from Nicolas in this episode. 

A couple of updates. eStreamly is partnering with Patti Reilly. You probably have read about her in a previous episode. We’re working on making a cool holiday day event. If you are a brand and want to have a professional host doing live stream shopping for you, Patty has tons of experience with live shopping. We’ll be happy to connect you with Patty, and she’d be happy to walk you through how we can create a successful event together.

The other thing I want to mention is I want to do a little plug here. We have a newsletter where we talk, which is the junction of content creation, eCommerce, live shopping, and social media altogether. If you’re interested in this space, feel free to subscribe. I’d love for you to start, John, and to tell us the story of BattlBox and why you say to the world that you are a content-first company. 

I’m excited to be here. I feel like things happen for a reason, and we were both on that video chat with Chase and the group. We were both living in close proximity, so I think it all worked out. As far as leading with content, which is something we’ve done for years, it just naturally happened. Battle Box started in early 2015. It was February, right before Valentine’s Day. My old business partner had come up with the idea.

His girlfriend at the time was getting a Birchbox in the mail every month, and he’d watch her unbox it, open it, and see the genuine excitement as she saw this month’s surprise. He wanted that for himself. He went online. He’s an outdoorsman. He wanted an outdoorsman box, and there wasn’t anything at the time that met what he was looking for. He’s a very creative guy and he came up with the idea. They launched, I believe, the first week of February. I had invested in and started being involved in a limited capacity by the end of February.

It wasn’t shortly after launch that I was intertwined in it. In the beginning, we didn’t do content. We had some content. We shot some videos. We’re mainly images, though. What we found was part of the initial strategy was sending out a bunch of BattlBoxes to YouTubers. Part of that Go-To-Market strategy and it has been for all brands we’ve been involved with since, is the Make It Rain product. It used to just be YouTube. Now we’ll send it to Instagrammers, and we’ll send it to TikTokers, anywhere we think someone has any influence.

We saw a lot of success on the YouTube side. It was so counterintuitive at the time, but we had a pre-purchase survey back then, which anybody that’s versed in conversion rate optimization might have a slight aneurysm at the thought of a non-data collecting, like experienced data collecting, just a pre-purchase survey question of how’d you hear about us? Not the right place. In it, we had all the usual suspects. How’d you hear about us first? Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube. We had Other, and we saw an alarming amount of YouTube.

We saw an even larger number of people clicking Other and putting in a gentleman’s name. His name is Brandon Currin, but his username was Currin1776, and people were putting him. We looked at the list of YouTubers or influencers we were sending boxes to, and he wasn’t on the list. We found him on there. We watched his videos. He is good and passionate, and we got excited watching him. We looked him up in the system, and he was a paying customer.

He was buying, at the time, $150 a month box. Unfortunately, with inflation, it’s gone up a couple of times, but he was paying full price. Getting the box and making a video, people were coming in large amounts relatively percentage-wise from his videos. We knew we were onto something right away with the success of YouTube, being our lead source organically, and this current gentleman. A couple of months went by, and it was consistent. Our numbers were larger and larger.

In the first month, we onboarded maybe 220 customers. In month two, we onboarded a little over 1,000 new. In month three, we broke 2,000 new. That became the normal number of onboarding new for a little bit, but we saw the relative percentage increase too. This current guy and YouTube, collectively, were bringing us a lot of customers. We weren’t doing any advertising. We were just advertising on Facebook, which was a little scary because that was our only source outside of this.

We reached out to Brandon and said, “We love what you’re doing. You don’t have to pay for your box anymore. We’re going to send you the box for free because we don’t want you to stop doing these videos.” Brandon agreed. At the same time, a few months went by, and we said, “Brandon, we really don’t want you to stop doing these videos. We know we said you got the box for free. You can. We’re going to give you a check each month to keep doing it. Please, don’t stop.”

That relationship grew. We saw, at this point, running in conjunction. We figured out advertising on Facebook. We were scaling and spending more and more on Facebook. Facebook was the lion’s share. It was the vast majority of our traffic and our customers at that point because we had scaled it and grown it to what it was. The video was still obviously a very large part, and people were still clicking at an alarming rate that they were coming here because of Currin. We reached out to him and said, “We want you to join us full-time.” He was a professional HVAC guy for a couple of decades.

This whole video YouTube channel was his hobby, his passion, the thing he did at nighttime, the thing he did when he wasn’t working. This was a dream come true for him too. We were getting this awesome personality individual that really connected with our customers. He was getting a dream job. It was a win-win. He came on board, and that was the beginning of us leaning into content. At that point, he was on the side, making one video a month for us. As a full-time team member, it was time to make more videos.

Shortly after launch, we launched something called BattlBoxForum.com, which was a Reddit-style bulletin board, if you will, where customers, anybody, could come in, get a free account and chat with like-minded people that were outdoorsmen, outdoor lovers. We saw it picking up a lot of women too. They all loved Currin. They all loved to interact. People were very passionate. We just knew, seeing both of those and us testing both. We didn’t even necessarily have a hypothesis that this was going to be the right move. We were just throwing stuff against the wall, hoping something would stick.

We quickly saw this connection with our customers and that this was more than customer service and customer interaction. This was a community. We were part of a community, and it was a cool feeling. That’s all she wrote. We doubled down on content. We doubled down on the community. Facebook forum eventually moved to a private Facebook group that requires you to be an active subscriber to be in it. It’s an added value. It’s a perk of being a member.   

TLEP 48 | Content First Approach
Content First Approach: This connection with our customers was more than just customer service and interaction. This was a community.

 

For the community piece, we’ve made pivots, changes and increased frequency and quality through the years of the videos. With things like TikTok and Instagram, we’re having to rethink how we’re doing videos. Several years ago, we just cared about horizontal and good quality, and now we have to film stuff in a way where we chop it up. We can get it vertically for the phone users since most of our traffic is on mobile now. It’s been a cool trip, but we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. We just quickly identified that community.

You have been part of a Netflix series, but it was intentional. It was not something where Netflix reached out and said, “Why don’t we do a series about your company and everything.” From my understanding of speaking with you, it was like, “We’re really good at video. How do we take this to the next level?” I’d love for you to share that realization and how did you end up having that series? Talk about that series itself. 

The TV show on Netflix, they weren’t the first place we went. Some back history on Brandon. Through the years, he’s done some videos and some TV stuff. He appeared on a popular hunting show a couple of times. Even watching that, you could tell that Brandon could steal the spotlight. He gets in front of the camera, and it’s great. Magic happens. He makes people laugh and has this amazing infectious personality, if you will.

When Brandon came and joined us full-time and could work on content full-time, it was very clear that this guy was not only a great human being and an amazing person, but he’s a salesman, but not because he is selling anything. It’s because he is being genuine, himself, talking about the product, and giving his honest opinion on it. He’s a salesman because people like him and trust him because he has this track record stating that you should. It was cool to see as more and more content came out, and we grew the community at the same time. People would get so excited. Through the years, we’d see, in the group, on Halloween, the little kids dressing up as him. It was beyond cool. We were continuing to try to figure out how do we take this to the next level.

We ended up chatting with this production studio called High Noon Entertainment. They had done some shows, Cake Boss and Fixer Upper. They had a couple of feathers in their hats with great shows they had some success with. We didn’t know the show was going to become what it became. They knew and saw the same thing we saw, which was that Brandon is a very talented person and is great in front of a camera. They weren’t sure exactly what it was going to look like. They liked the idea of Battlbox. They wanted to see if they could incorporate it into it.

They were going to shoot a sizzle reel, which comes before a pilot when we’re talking like the old terms before Netflix started dropping the whole series at one time. They came down, and they filmed a sizzle reel. They spent a couple of days at one of our offices, and they had some ideas of what it was going to be the premise and the idea. Their plan was they were going to take this and get back to Colorado. They were going to edit it up, and they were going to serve it to the History Channel and see if History Channel would write a check for a pilot. All that went really well.

They took it to them. History Channel sat for about six months, maybe a little longer, and then said, “No, we’re good. Thank you.” It was a little disheartening. We were excited. We were waiting for that call where they were going to say, “Yes, we want to do it.” It never came. High Noon Entertainment then said, “Don’t fret. We still feel good about this.” They went and pitched it to Discovery. Discovery sat on it for 6, 7 months and finally said “No,” as well. Both of these conversations were, “We need money for a pilot, not the Netflix model of whole seasons.” They said, “We’re not done with this. We’re going to keep pitching this.”

January 2019 rolls around, and they’re going to meet in the same week, I believe, or within back-to-back weeks with Walmart for their streaming service, which I don’t know the name of. I don’t think they’ve had a lot of success with that, but beggars can’t be choosers. If anybody wanted to give us a TV show, we weren’t going to say no. They were meeting with Walmart streaming service and the big one, Netflix. They met with both.

TLEP 48 | Content First Approach
Content First Approach: Beggars can’t be choosers. We won’t say no if anybody wants to give us a TV show.

 

We weren’t in the room. It was High Noon and Netflix on the pitch was that Netflix said, “Yeah, we’ll do it, but we don’t do pilots because it’s 2019. We do full seasons.” They quickly said, “We want to do a season. We want the rights to seven seasons,” or something to that extent. I want to say in a few weeks, we have a rather large contract to review. 

It’s very interesting if you think about how you became a content-first company in some way. It’s here’s a product. It resonates well. You test a bunch of things with different audiences, and then with these different creators, one of them is really sticking. It’s not actually as creators as a client, and then you start diving into that and creating a community and start to grow. From there, how do we make this even bigger? Netflix came around, which is fantastic. If you look at what happened, how do you think is the success of what you’re doing attributed to all the video content you’ve been producing versus the fact that it was the right product at the right time? 

I don’t want to discredit that it wasn’t the right product at the right time. I think subscription boxes in early 2015 were popping. That was the craze because we saw a major correction two years later. There were 10,000 different subscription boxes out there, and it fell to less than half of that in a nine-month span. That was a part of it. Timing, I think, is a big piece. What I will tell you is with the content, it’s a major part. We have a great product, but when you can acquire customers besides the cost of making content, which isn’t cheap, but it’s less expensive than paying the rates we pay on Facebook or somewhere else to acquire customers, the advertising costs, our two biggest channels.

We spend a relatively decent amount. We spend six figures every month on advertising. We have a relatively decent-sized budget, but our number at the beginning of the year switched to TikTok. TikTok was our number one lead source. It’s now flip-flopped three times since. They’re just neck and neck. It’s YouTube, and it’s TikTok.

Now, is all of that content on YouTube ours? No. We have a relatively decent following. I think maybe 400,000-ish subscribers. We’re also sending lots of boxes out on YouTube because the reality is content is content. While we might like our content and we might think that our content is great, other people make amazing content too. The value of a Battlbox, so we have the drop model where at the beginning of the month, we ship everyone their boxes at the same time.

Content is content. And while we might like our content and we might think that our content is great, other people make amazing content too. Share on X

It takes us several days to get all these trucks full of boxes out. We start with the West Coast, and then we go across the coast and the states, and everybody gets their box around the same time. It’s this drop model where no one knows what’s in it until everybody starts getting it. You also then have all of the YouTubers and TikTokers, everybody, as soon as they can, racing to get their content up first because if they get it up first, they might get a few extra thousand views. You have this inundation of Battlbox content all hit around the same time, 40, 50, 60 videos. It’s a unique experience, all content. 

I have a follow-up question about that as a content creator. As you’re sharing this story, I’m thinking about where we’re at now versus you’re sharing some of the history of this. For example, I receive a monthly subscription box as part of a partnership I do with the brand. Lately, I’ve been feeling stumped about how to create effective content because it seems like a lot of content creators are doing that more traditional haul-style video. I don’t find that it performs very well with my audience. What other types of content are working well to help market a box as a content creator? 

I can give you an answer now and in two months, that answer might be different. It’s the unfortunate thing of content being so critical, the algorithms changing, and our approach and strategy getting refined. Right now, we’re doing all kinds of content. We’re doing pure funny stuff that it’s a semi-on brand. We did the tortilla challenge, where you put the water and slap each other. That has nothing to do with outdoor gear at all, but it was trending, and we wanted to show we are humans and it humanizes us a little bit. We’re not just a brand. There’s some value there.

It’s tough. I don’t think there’s a one size fits all correct way to do content. As a content creator, you know what your audience likes more. You know it better because you get to live and die by the video that doesn’t get as many views and likes as you wanted it to, and then this one dies. As a content creator, it’s a very emotionally draining profession and experience. It’s ups and downs. The feeling you have when you have a really good video and then we go weeks without a good one.

TLEP 48 | Content First Approach
Content First Approach: As a content creator, you know what your audience likes more. You know it better because you get to live and die by the video that doesn’t get as many views and likes. As a content creator, it’s a very emotionally draining profession and experience.

 

We’re on these meeting calls talking about it. It’s like we want to kick a baby. Not really, but yeah. I don’t think there’s a solid answer that applies to everybody. I know for us, Battlbox specifically, we do all kinds of content. We’re doing funny skits. We’re doing funny trends. We’re doing product reviews. We’re going through the box. It’s a full spectrum from extremely on-brand, extremely to the point, to funny stuff, to finding stuff we know we can lean in on.

Water filtration is a part of camping and being a survivalist or anything like that. You want to have some sort of water filtration, and it’s just a small part of what we might include in a box. We might not even include that in every box, or maybe only once or twice a year. Water filtration videos, for some reason, on TikTok, at least on our account, perform ridiculously well. Once we realize that, we’re like, “Holy cow.”

You don’t see a lot of people doing this. When you have content that performs well, do it again. It’s as simple as that. Chop it up. It’s the challenge if you’re creating on your phone on Instagram or YouTube, or TikTok. There’s a little bit of a challenge in getting that video out. There’re tools to use to pull the TikTok watermark and stuff like that. Our preferred MO is to upload videos that we already have up to all of the channels independently.

That makes it easy for us to make a couple of tweaks, move this clip up, start this clip a little bit later, maybe add different music, maybe put different audio, different subtitles, and you can quickly make a very similar clip different enough. It might have been a 34-second clip before, and now we’re going to make it a 30-second clip. We moved something and stopped something a little bit earlier, and it’s a completely different video, but there’s a strong possibility it’s going to perform really well too. 

I’d love for you to look at your marketing conversation now. Is that what you’re talking about? Recouping the video and trying to find out, “How do I optimize my video?” It sounds to me that because video has been so important for you, this is really the big topic of the day. Every day, you are dealing with, like, “How do we optimize our content? How do we make it funnier? How do we serve the content?” Maybe there is this customer who may not be aware of what we are doing, so let’s target them with that.

It’s a thoughtful strategy, and video is at the core of everything you do, from what I’m hearing. Now, I’d love to go back to what you said earlier, where you said there were so many boxes, and then in nine months, half of them died. I wonder what the impact on the community you felt when that crisis came along. Do you feel that because you have that strong community makes you stronger to pass through that phase? Do you feel that community is something that Brian should build? Is it something you would recommend, and is that helping through times of difficulty?

The first part, it added to it. When there was that sub-box correction and half of them went away, I think, sure, us having the community, it didn’t hurt us. I don’t think it was the main variable. The main variable was that we had probably gotten relatively too big to fail at that point. We were already profitable. We were already over a certain size. We knew we could make some changes and be fine. I will tell you, though, that as we go through this current recession, I think the community piece is very important because these people care.

TLEP 48 | Content First Approach
Content First Approach: The community piece is very important as we go through this current recession because these people care.

 

These people have built friendships in our Facebook group and in our groups in general. Don’t get me wrong, I want everybody in every country in the world to have a BattlBox in their house, but you look at a recession. You have to look at a need-want scale and ask yourself, “Where do we fall as a product on that scale?”

I wish we were closer to the want than we are, but the reality is camping gear, outdoor gear, and survival gear isn’t as much on the need side as we need it to be. It’s an interesting dynamic. You look at some of the other eCommerce companies and where they’re now versus where they were twelve months ago. It’s scary. There’re some drastic clawbacks on these companies that shot up crazy during COVID when people can’t leave.

Now people can leave their houses again. They’re not shopping with some of these brands. You’re seeing 20%, 30%, 40% drops in what run rates look like. That’s scary. I think having that community helps. Nicolas, you asked a question about do I recommend a community. I 100% recommend a community, but I do think a very key thing is making sure you’re utilizing your community correctly. One of the easiest ways to do that is to ask for feedback. Make sure you’re listening to them.

You’re not building that community just so they all can hang out. You have to join it yourself. You have to eat your own dog food, if you will, but you also have to have some thick skin because we see it on the internet every day. People aren’t nice. When they’re behind a keyboard, people are eight feet tall and 500 pounds of muscle. It’s tough because you genuinely need feedback. That’s the only way you’re going to improve as a brand. That’s the only way you’re going to improve as a company.

You need to listen to your customers and hear what they’re saying because, a lot of times, they’re right. That’s a big piece, but that reason alone is a reason why you should do it. It’s also probably an easy way to start to build that community. If you will, create brand, brand partnerships, or brand ambassadors, and influencers and just lean in, but make it centric around customer feedback.

The only way you will improve as a brand and company is to listen to your customers and hear what they say. Share on X

When I’m thinking about community and video, I feel that live stream is like that merge of both, where you can have people engaging that instant interaction right there on the live stream. There are some constraints on what you can do on the live versus what you can do with the prerecorded. I don’t know if you have one last comment before we jump off, but I found this conversation very interesting for many brand retailers.

The reason why I wanted to have you on the show is when I hear your story, the way you think, the way you conceptualize community, video, and all that, for me, it’s like this is a conversation we will all have, I believe, by 2027 or 2028. Everyone will be thinking that way and conversing that way. That’s my point of view. Here we are, 2022, you’re talking, and it’s thoughtful about it. I don’t know. It’s fascinating. 

I think you’re right. In a few years, everyone will have changed their mentality. I find it interesting. I’m surprised by all these major players, Shopify announcing its partnership with YouTube for live streaming. You have several lives. All the social channels are offering live streaming. You guys are offering a place to bring it all to the website. There’re all these options that are coming up. I’m shocked that people aren’t trying to adapt faster. It doesn’t make any sense. Maybe it’s going to be one of those waterfalls or a snowball. We’re going to be like, “Why isn’t it going in?” All of a sudden, it’s going to go, and it’s going to go fast, and it’ll be too late if you didn’t try to become an early adopter.

I think that’s such a great note to end on because a lot of people do hesitate. They get afraid, and they’re not willing to adapt on the fly, make mistakes, and learn along the way. That’s been one of my big takeaways. I can sense that with the work you’re doing, John, and your willingness to experiment. Something that we were talking about before we started recording is how you’re putting in a lot of work to figure out platforms like TikTok.

You’re trying different things, seeing what sticks. That was one of my big takeaways. The quote was, “When you have content that performs really well, do it again.” The opposite is true too. If it doesn’t perform really well, then maybe try something else. That’s just such a great thing to remind people of. Thank you so much for sharing your story, John, for sharing these words of wisdom, inspiring our readers, and giving us such a great use case here. We appreciate you taking the time.

For the readers, I hope you’ve enjoyed this and found a lot of value. Go back and find some of these great quotes. Share it with anybody. We also have that for accessibility reasons. Check out Nicolas’s amazing newsletter, as he mentioned, in which he often highlights amazing things and developments happening in that field too.

We’ll be back again with another episode. If you want to be notified of that, please give us a subscribe. We are coming up on 50 episodes of the show and can’t wait to have more amazing guests like John. We appreciate you reading, and we’ll see you then. Thanks again, John and Nicolas, for a great conversation.

 

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