How This Energy Drink Maker Raised Over $1M for Its Cause — Podcasts (2021)

Created by an ex-Navy Seal, Kill Cliff is a clean energy drink that has donated over $1 Million in proceeds to the Navy Seal Foundation. In this episode of Shopify Masters, we chat with ecommerce director Ryan Roberts about why not all retail expansion is beneficial and how Kill Cliff differentiates within a saturated market.

For the full transcript of this episode, click here.

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Show Notes

How Kill Cliff found its niche–and its target audience–unconventionally

Felix: Tell us a little bit about the origins of the Kill Cliff brand. 

Ryan: The company was founded in 2011 by Todd Ehrlich, who’s a former Navy SEAL. Todd was tired of everything available in the marketplace. All the drinks that were available at the time were either sugar water, or extremely high doses of toxic fake ingredients. When the company was first founded it wasn’t actually clear what direction we were headed. Todd came up with the original idea of Kill Cliff, as a healthier replacement of other products in the market. We talked with some investors, and ended up going to market with our original Kill Cliff, which is now tagged as our Kill Cliff energize and recover tasty, flood orange.

That was the product we originally launched with and went to production for about 80,000 cases, stored in his garage. Todd and our very first employee GW decided to start pushing the product. They started hitting local Atlanta bars during original testing. They realized, “Okay, well this drink–while it does provide hydration benefits–it also helps with muscle recovery after a workout or a long day, but it also helps with hangovers.” It’s a funny by-product of the brand. They started going to a lot of bars in Atlanta and literally selling out of the trunk of their car and grew the brand from that. A couple of years later, we started getting into CrossFit, which was really big at the time. As CrossFit was growing, we naturally grew along with it.

Ryan Roberts, the Director of Ecommerce at Kill Cliff sitting in an office setting.
Kill Cliff’s sales journey started locally by founder Todd Ehrlich when he visited local bars and sold out of the back of his car. 

We started selling it to some of the gyms and we found a very good fit there. CrossFit athletes, typically like healthier products, they’re counting their macros all the time. They’re always conscious of what they’re putting in their body. That’s how we found our fit. Our product was made of clean ingredients, better for you, and functional. We weren’t sitting here and selling snake oil to anybody. It was just basic ingredients. We have B vitamins, electrolytes, enzymes, and plant extracts that help through the recovery process with muscle fatigue, inflammation, soreness as well as the hydration benefits after a tough workout, naturally. It is an absolutely perfect overlap with CrossFit. Around 2013 through 2015, we realized we were growing so fast that it was time to start looking outside of the CrossFit market. 

The struggle we ran into at that time was that everybody perceived us as an energy drink. A 12 ounce slim can looks like an energy drink. We struggled early on fighting that stigma that, “Oh, we’re not an energy drink.” Now we’ve got to get into a science fight and do all these explanations for questions like, “okay, well then what are you?” Because a recovery drink didn’t exist at that time. People were used to, “Okay, I’m used to Gatorade for hydration, or I’m used to something for energy,” but this space really didn’t exist. We started getting into that struggle of explaining, “okay, well, we help after a workout or we help after you’ve been working all day and you’re exhausted, but it’s too late in the day to really have an energy drink.” We fit that use case perfectly. We started trying to expand and brought in two people at the time that would help through the expansion. Natural for the CBG world and drink world in particular is to expand into retail.

Unfortunately we were a little aggressive at that time and tried to go retail before our brand was really well known. We saw some of the struggles trying to get into the retail space. There was a strong pull back after that. We went into some retail channels and realized, “Hey, it’s not really working for us here, so we need to do some reevaluation.” Continued to try expanding into some other customer bases. We were running on Magento which, as a lot of people that are familiar with ecommerce are, that becomes a four letter word really quickly. We had some struggles with the platform, especially being a small brand. Of course,we went through all the development side and outsourcing and tried to find people that could actually work the website since we were a very small team.

We continued to fight through the expansion online. Unfortunately like all small brands, we started struggling a little bit trying to figure out, “Okay, who’s our target audience?” Maybe we thought we knew that target audience, but maybe we really don’t. Who’s buying from us? We found we had a military affinity audience that we call them. It’s not necessarily people that have been in the military or served in the military, or even necessarily have family members in the military. It’s a lot broader than that. It’s all encompassing of service members, veterans, and their family members, but it’s also people that may just have friends that were military or feel a real closeness to the military. That’s the common thread that we saw across our entire audience that our brand resonated with, because of our founder Todd being a Navy SEAL.

Early on Todd had a mission. He wanted to be one of the largest donors to the Navy SEAL Foundation. As our company continued to grow, we went through every company’s struggles of, “how do we pay the bills this month? Do we need to focus on sales or do we need to focus on being profitable?” There were times where we were really struggling with figuring out payroll and growth, but we always managed to cut a check to the Navy SEAL Foundation. That was our mission. Our focus is to give back to that community. That of course resonated with a lot of our customers too, and will continue to propel our growth for years to come.

How leaning into the unexpected opened up adjacent markets

Felix: You mentioned that after you had made your first production run, you of course tried to identify and think like your target audience. You discovered that there were new use cases or avenues that you could pursue. What did you do with that information? How did you move forward?

Ryan: We always try leaning into it. We’ll do a little bit of investigation. Is this something that’s really widespread, widely viewed? A good example is, most military members tend to lean towards borderline alcoholics. We liked to drink. One of those use cases was using our beverages as a mixer. The typical energy drink that’s sold in every bar across the country, high caffeine, mixing with alcohol is not necessarily the best formula for a healthy or safe night. The bars that brought us in early on loved the fact that our recovery drink had very, very low caffeine. It’s 25 milligrams to serve in the functional role of muscle recovery. They liked the fact that it was low in caffeine. They liked the fact that, “Okay, yes, it does assist with hydration and possible hangover cure. It’s perfect.”

We lean heavily into that by pushing the product into the bars. The muscle recovery and getting into the gyms was not initially a real target audience of ours, either. It just happened to be once we started sampling and people were like, “Hey, this is a perfect drink for what we do.” We’re like, “Hey, you’re right, absolutely.” You’ve got to be very nimble–especially early on as a business–to be able to pivot to some of those target audiences. A lot of times people design a product with a specific target audience in mind and come to find out that’s not their ideal target audience at all. You just have to be nimble and be able to pivot to focus on that. That’s exactly what we did with CrossFit, and that’s what helped us grow and continue to grow in that community for several years. The same thing with bars. Some of the original bars that brought our product back in 2011 still sell the product and sell more of it than some of the big, popular name brands that are out there.

Felix: It sounds like you discovered these adjacent markets by testing the waters and trying new things. Is that something the company consciously works into its strategy? How do you make sure you’re staring open to adjacent market fits? 

Ryan: One thing that worked for us extremely well was making sure that these markets have a good bit of overlap. You’ve heard the cliche. You want to be a big fish in a small pond, which helps with growth early on. A lot of companies make that pivot too early to start trying to expand into other areas that don’t necessarily have a clean overlap. They end up spreading themselves too thin and having to pull back extremely hard, or unfortunately they completely fail based on what they had assumed. As we were looking at expanding into those additional audiences or use cases, we always had to do a deep dive evaluation of, “Okay, what does the overlap here look like?”

Whether it’s demographic data, persona data or anything along those lines, we really wanted to make sure that CrossFit and the military affinity audience at the first glance, doesn’t actually necessarily map up for a lot of people, but it has a very strong overlap. CrossFit was rooted in military tradition and the type of workouts that they were doing. You go into any CrossFit gym today, and they’re flying almost every single military branch flag along with multiple American flags sometimes. There was naturally a lot of overlap there. Then of course, you’ll see a lot of overlap because at our core message of being a mission-driven organization and being a veteran business and owning that and owning who we are, whether that be a super serious, focused, structured mission or the typical irreverent dark humor that you see from a lot of military personnel that, “Oh, am I not supposed to be laughing at this joke?” That’s a little dark, and we own it. 

That’s become our motto over the years is just own it. No matter who you are, no matter what you do, what your focus is, just own it. You go with it and you push through a lot of that’s rooted in our military training. A good portion of us now in the company, or people who have worked for the company, are veterans. It helps continue to push that message.

The case for embracing the brand your customers project

Felix: Do you have a data driven aspect to how you determine if there’s overlap? 

Ryan: I’m definitely a data-driven person. Insights drive business. If you’re moving your business online and you’re really looking at growth, you’ve got to dive into the numbers and understand not necessarily just where your customers come from, but who they are. You’ve got to spend some time. A lot of people are like, “Oh, well, these are the customers coming to our website. That’s just who they are, that’s our target audience.” You have to understand how to talk to those specific people. We’ve all heard the terminology thrown around the internet for years, “buyer personas.” At first glance, it seems silly that you need to put a persona with a buying group that’s coming into your site. As you work through it, it becomes a lot more clear. If I’m this person, this is the messaging that’s going to resonate with me. We’ve leaned into analytics. To be honest, there’s probably times we over analyze our business. If you don’t know where you’ve been and how you got there, it’s hard to direct where you’re going to go.

A bottle of Kill Cliff beverage backdropped by a river.
Staying in tune with different customers’ wants and needs helped Kill Cliff’s product development process. 

Felix: As you’re expanding into these positions, and talking to these new audiences, how do you make sure that you’re speaking their language? 

Ryan: That’s a great point because it helped change the direction of this company drastically with making that decision and figuring out not only how we own who we are, but our audience and what they expect and want from us. We told you the story, and we founded a recovery drink. We fought the science fight for a long time, but we’re not an energy drink. We’re not an energy drink. We’re a recovery drink. This is our use case. We listened to our customers and owned what they gave us. We got honest feedback. That’s something that we’ve continued to do over the years with flavor revisions or product revisions. Four years ago, we made the decision. “You know, what? Our customers are screaming about an energy drink, we’re a recovery drink, but maybe we need to take a deeper dive into this.” Okay, the energy drink market’s awful, some of the ingredients in these products couldn’t be worse for you. There’s high risk of heart palpitations, heart arrhythmia and side effects with the toxic ingredients they’ve put into them. 

We stepped into that arena. I was like, “You know what? This is what our customers want. Let’s design a healthier energy drink.” In 2018, we launched the first clean energy drink. At that point, we’ve titled ourselves the clean energy drink company. Our recovery drink, while it does provide an energy type functionality that revives you, our new ignite product launched in 2008 was strictly geared as a better for you energy drink. We ripped the typical energy drink apart and said, “Hey, let’s take a look at what those functional ingredients are.” Caffeine, B vitamins without overloading those B vitamins to where you’re going to get a crash. A big issue here is why do a lot of people feel tired during the day? They feel they need and energy drink and hydration as well.

We said, “Well, we’re going to make an energy drink with electrolytes.” And we did that. We launched our ignite product that not only had 150 milligrams of clean caffeine from green tea. It also had six times the electrolytes of the leading sports drink out there. We ran with it. We owned it. We unfortunately made several mistakes during that process and assumptions rather than listening to our customer. If we own that mistake again, adapt, and then release our ignite product with a much better flavor profile, the ingredients don’t change too much. We leaned in a little bit too early on when we first released it, “Okay, well, we’re heavy in the CrossFit space. So the gym space, so our energy drink needs to be focused on those people. They’re used to pre-workout. Let’s make some healthy energy drinks. It’s focused on that space.” It was a mistake. We adapted and went the more traditional tasting energy drink route, with the difference being that we are clean.

Felix: It’s very common to make logical assumptions regarding evaluating market fit. How do you make sure that your team is always working to listen directly to what the customers are saying? 

Ryan: It’s something that we learned early on. You can make a lot of assumptions and think through the process at length with your team, but at the end of the day, the easiest route is just to ask the customers. Paying customers are the most truthful people you’ll ever meet. We consider ourselves a premium brand. We’re definitely not the $1 energy drink on the shelf. What we found effective is to listen to the customers. They’ll tell you exactly what they’re wanting. That helped us adapt from the early version of our energy drink to what is today.

“What we found effective is to listen to the customers. They’ll tell you exactly what they’re wanting.”

Felix: What is some advice you’d give to early stage startups who might not have a lot of feedback readily available, on evaluating whether they’re heading in the right direction? 

Ryan: Where a lot of people fall into a bit of an issue here is they’ll go out and they’ll ask their echo chamber–so their closest family members. Maybe they’ll do some taste testing. Most customers or potential customers get led too much. You don’t get honest feedback. Your typical CBG company will go out there and say, “I’m going to sample this to 1,000 people and get their feedback.” A lot of that feedback you get is absolutely trash. You’ve got to find a way to get that honest feedback. A lot of times that comes with a paying customer. It’s more difficult to acquire that feedback when the customer doesn’t have something vested in it, because they all of a sudden become an expert themselves and want to direct you, rather than just providing honest, critical feedback from something that they had to pay for.

The most successful to segment sample groups when sending out feedback surveys

Felix: How do you approach these paying customers to ask for feedback? What’s your strategy for collecting it? 

Ryan: We do sample size testing from our customer base and it’s basically equal parts VIP customers, equal parts customers that bought one time and bounced, then of course your random customers that may buy every great once in a while. Review apps do great for a lot of things, but a lot of times people think that they’re submitting a review off into the internet space, and that no one’s going to read it. It lacks a lot of personalization. While we do obviously collect reviews, because we want to be able to publish them for strategic reasons, we also make them a lot more personal. Whether it comes from an email direct from me or one of my team members that run our email marketing or SMS, it’s a lot more personal message letting them know, “Hey, we are a small company, and that adds some benefits here, because we’re able to talk to you a little bit more on a personal level and get your honest feedback. We care about your feedback, and this is how we grow and evolve as a company. We need your feedback, and be as brutally honest as possible. You’re not going to hurt our feelings.” Get your feedback here and we’ll go from there. At that point, it becomes a statistics model. You’re going to have your typical bell curve and outliers of people. I can get two extremely brutal, honest feedback surveys back-to-back. One that’s critical that says our drinks are too bitter, one that says our drinks are too sweet, and they’re literally talking about the same drink. You have to scramble out that noise, figure out where your feedback lies, and do what you can to adjust from there.

Felix: When you’re talking about segmenting your target users for the surveys, what do you find are the benefits of asking these different types of customers? What kind of feedback do you get from the different answers? 

Ryan: It’s a bigger, broader picture than necessarily just those customers. VIP customers tend to give you a lot more feedback on the company as a whole, because they’re typically big fans of the brand. They’re going to love almost everything and anything you do. You’re going to have those customers. You’ve got to filter through the noise there and get what they’re saying, because like I said, they’re going to give you a little bit less critical feedback. You balance that with the people that bought one time and done, and maybe don’t have a connection to your brand. There’s no clear cut, concise formula here. I’d probably be retired by this point if I had that exact formula, but it’s a matter of juggling those and going through each piece and running a couple of statistical models to figure out, “where does it make the most sense to make changes?” If those changes are made, how does it affect our existing customer base? 

The last thing you want to do is necessarily isolate those VIP customers now, just because you’re trying to appease the customers that bought one and done. You’ve got to make small incremental changes that can be a little bit more mainstream as you are with the knowledge that you are going to possibly exclude some of those VIP customers and some other people. Not everybody’s going to love your brand. That’s just the way it is. The less time you spend on realizing that, the easier it is to handle change and continue moving forward without spinning your wheels.

Three bottles of energy drinks from Kill Cliff backdropped by two people sitting on patio chairs.
Operating online and selling directly to consumers allows Kill Cliff to have a faster production turnaround and be more adaptable to feedback. 

Felix: One thing you touched on is about how you need to be adaptable with your approach. What does a pivot like that look like? 

Ryan: When it comes to our product as a whole, it’s a little slow of a process. When we run production, we’re producing mass quantities of our drinks. As we’re collecting that feedback we know and can plan for future production runs. If we need to make small incremental changes, or just throw our hands in there, say, “Hey, we made a mistake. We’re going to make a complete change.” And we’ve done that before. We’ve made both small incremental changes to where we needed to tweak a flavor. And then we’ve completely scrapped our entire night energy drink line and completely, released all new flavors and said, “Hey, this is what it is now.” But it required a lot of testing and user feedback, we are a lot more nimble than some of our competitors.

That’s helped us lead our access online. Most of your beverage brands are going to be primarily in the retail space, where we’ve had the luck and been fortunate enough to be primarily direct-to-consumer online, which is a lot more common now than it was a couple of years ago. It allows us to be a lot more dynamic. We can do a little bit smaller production runs if we’re not loading out massive retailers, we can get quicker feedback from customers as opposed to waiting through the long sales cycle in retail. And it allows us to be a lot more nimble as a brand.

How to market in an industry filled with user preconceptions

Felix: When you’re creating new drinks and releasing different flavors how do you make sure you’re not overwhelming your target audience? 

Ryan: There’s plenty of companies out there that you see in our space that just flavor after flavor, after flavor. You’re overwhelmed at choice to that point. While you may get more eyes on those, the chance of conversion rates is extremely reduced at that point. With most of our product lines, we’ve maintained very few flavors. Our largest product line right now has seven flavors and then a variety pack options. We decided early on that it’s better to be a little bit more simple on the flavor profile approach. It allows us to do lower production runs and stay a little bit more nimble when it comes to inventory levels. It also allows us to adjust. There’s times where we’ve talked through, “let’s do a temporary flavor release to test it out and how it does direct-to-consumer.” We’re able to do that. We can drop a flavor, get user feedback, and then decide to continue on with that flavor longterm or not. We did an entire product line release just based on that idea itself.

Felix: How have you addressed changing people’s perspectives when it comes to energy drinks? So that they’re not just applying their preconceptions to your brand? 

Ryan: It’s something that we continue to struggle with, even today. It’s the constant cycle of educating people on what they are used to. Most people are used to an energy drink and the perception of it’s toxic ingredients. It’s unhealthy. That’s becoming more common knowledge now where a couple of years ago, people could honestly care less. They will say the vast majority of consumers of energy drinks could care less about the ingredients and weren’t well-informed on what those ingredients even were. They knew sugar, and they knew no sugar. Their perception of the no sugar or sugar-free energy drinks as, “Oh, these are healthy,” but they’re really not. The wild sugar may be taken out of it. You’re still putting in a lot of other artificial stuff that can be equally as risky for your body.

What we’ve done–and it requires a lot more education to our consumers–is not only on the product details page, but even in our marketing campaigns, we’ve had to test what messaging works. That’s how we established the simplicity of the clean energy drink company. You see energy drink companies all over the place, but we are the clean one, and that’s helped differentiate our messaging as we push out there. We lead with a lot of the science on our top of the funnel marketing strategies to acquire new customers as we’re prospecting. We can get more into the brand story as they fall down that funnel.

A can of Kill Cliff beverage against the backdrop of ATVs.
Along with sales, education on product ingredients and quality versus other brands is a crucial part for Kill Cliff’s growth strategy. 

Felix: What were the considerations that were taken into account when the company decided to pursue direct-to-consumer versus retail?

Ryan: Retail was an extremely risky play. What a lot of people don’t realize about the retail space is that in our case, every square inch of space is money for that retailer. As we started venturing in, we’d have customers ask us all the time, “Why aren’t you in this retailer? Why aren’t you in this retailer?” It’s not necessarily our choice. You have to pitch that retailer. You have to convince them that you deserve that shelf space. That not only do you deserve it, but you actually have to be able to justify and pull through on that shelf space for them to justify having you on there versus one of the billion dollar brands and giving them their 72nd flavor on the shelf.

It’s definitely been a struggle early on. We got into those shelf spaces with those retailers a lot of times. You buy your spot, just so that they’re covering their bases. Their risk is diverted a little bit if we’re prepaying for those slotting fees, then there are a lot more willing to put us on the shelf, but then it still becomes, “Okay, well, we’ve got one or two spots here on the shelf.” Some of these other brands literally have 15 to 30 flavors. On ecommerce having too many flavors can be a struggle on the shelf it’s perception and your typical marketing mindset of, “Oh, look at all these options.” That’s what your brain and eyes are drawn to versus trying to narrow in and reading all the ingredients there.

The way you get pulled through is brand recognition and knowing that your products are there, and that’s where we struggled early on in retail. Not only that, but trying to educate the buyers in those retail locations of, “Hey, we’re a little bit different. So yes, you got eight other energy drinks in here, but we’re a clean version of it.” Again, as early on, the education wasn’t necessarily always there. Trying to sell them on it and get them to understand, well, people are going to care about ingredients, but that’s not necessarily the truth on a shelf. A lot of times it’s walk up grab.

Navigating the transition from retail to direct-to-consumer

Felix: Was it a difficult transition to maneuver with the company? 

Ryan: It actually wasn’t as difficult as you would think. So when I started with the company myself and our now CEO started on the same day. We had an equal mindset with the direction of the company. We saw the retail plays, and the lack of pull through was happening, we were getting shelf placement, but not necessarily pulling through. At some point, those retailers are going to step back and say, “Hey, you’re not selling well at foot. We need to pull you out.” Rather than waiting for that time to come, we did it ourselves. We were saying, “Hey, we’re readjusting our strategy.” At that point, we went headstrong into direct-to-consumer. All my background is in the ecommerce IT realm. That’s what I was brought in to do.

We went head first into direct-to-consumer, pushed into an extremely aggressive content strategy for the site. When I started with the company, we had five flavors, so about seven sku’s. Getting into that space and trying to figure out a way to get your customer back to your site was a struggle. Most people would come in and buy once a month. A lot of times they would buy or set up a subscription. They wouldn’t even come back to your site necessarily every month. We went in through this process of, “Okay, how do we get our users to engage with the brand more?” That developed our current content strategy, whether it’d be long form or short form.

We went pretty aggressive into the blogging space, as well as video content. It allowed us to show a lot of who we are as a brand. That irreverent humor that we like to talk about a lot. Of course, we’re writing these blog articles that are strictly focused on the education piece of what people are already searching for and trying to reach those customers. Why is sucralose bad for you? Well, we don’t put sucralose in our product, and we’re not just a Wikipedia page of educating people, but it allowed us an opportunity to really reach out to those customers that may be looking for a better option rather than searching for something real, intrinsic and saying, “Hey, this is exactly I’m looking for a clean energy drink.” A lot of customers don’t necessarily know what to look for or what to search for.

This content strategy really allowed us to branch out and reach for some of those customers. Unfortunately, it probably got a couple of cease and desists from us calling out some of our big brand competitors. That just means that we’re making waves and doing the right thing.

Felix: Can you elaborate on the content strategy? How frequently were you churning out content? 

Ryan: It was a multi-point strategy. It resonated with our existing customers and then gave us an option to bring in new customers as well. Batching blasts, and they’re getting as many articles as we could out there with a video. A lot of times it was very similar. We had a wide selection of the video content out there. Early on we did a lot of short form funny videos, which of course we all know they get extremely good traffic, but it’s not necessarily always the best for bringing customers in because a customer’s attention spans are very short online. A lot of these videos that we led with that we thought were hilarious internally and maybe talked about our product or whatnot, didn’t really resonate with calls to action.

We found out early on that type of stuff really doesn’t work for prospecting and top of the funnel well for us. We adapted and got more into the science and benefits of our product on prospecting and educating customers on why we’re different, because if you see energy drinks and cool companies, at that point your key differentiators aren’t obvious. We decided to talk about those first and then bring in the brand and that lifestyle brand, video, and content around it.

How Kill Cliff repurposed content to find success in its marketing strategy

Felix: You mentioned a goal of these content approaches was getting conversions to the funnel. How do you measure success when it comes to video content? 

Ryan: The key thing here for a lot of smaller brands and startup brands is to not overanalyze and let a piece of content stay out there too long, hoping that it’s going to work. You need to get it out there and you’ll understand very quickly if it’s working or not. Take your emotions out of it. With a lot of the short form stuff that we were doing and the funny videos, we realized early one we realized that people weren’t really clicking through on it. Particularly on Facebook and Instagram, they’re not clicking through on it, but, Facebook is saying that they’re watching it, so brand building. That’s a major mistake for a lot of smaller brands. Most small brands can’t afford a bunch of marketing dollars towards that brand building without a measurable ROI and call to action that they’re seeing revenue generated from. You can wish and hope all you want, but your bank account is going to run pretty thin if you do that.

Felix: Have you been able to translate the video content into written content or is that a completely different thing? 

Ryan: It has a lot to do with the customers we’re reaching out to. What we’re finding now with content is being able to provide articles that we see are getting a lot of traction as videos. We end up turning into videos because while blog articles are great and they get a lot of traffic, let’s be honest–attention spans again–most people aren’t willing to read a very long article. We adhere to typical blog standards of keeping it short, sweet, concise, and it’s still informative. There’s only so much you can do with the tech side of that with a good portion of your potential customer base. What we’ve found is translating that into a video breakdown has helped tremendously with more customers engaging with it, and more time spent on those pages. Then of course the call to actions or click-throughs to an actual conversion and driving trial is also gone up.

Felix: How long before you started to see validation regarding the transition to video content? 

Ryan: Honestly, it wasn’t that long. A lot of articles definitely flopped. You’re going to have failures in anything like that. You can’t expect to hit a home run. It’s more important that you get more articles out there because you can always make revisions to them. It’s a constant measure and revision on a lot of articles. A lot of articles got completely scrapped because we realized they’re not what our customers want to read. They’re not what they’re looking for. This was more or less a waste of time. We measure all engagement on those content pieces. If we’re pushing it out to our existing customers, through email or SMS, we’re looking at click-throughs, how much time spent on-site? What’s the bounce rate look like? Then we adapt from there, go back through our SEO meetings and say, “Okay, do we need to revise this article?” Maybe gear it a little bit more towards the way Google’s algorithms currently working is another piece.

We’ve had articles that within a week of us writing them, they’re on the first page of Google. Then, a couple of months later, all of a sudden they’re on the 50th page. Being able to analyze and understand what’s happening there, and if you’re not answering the proper questions. Old school SEO tactics no longer work. You can’t just sit there and keyword load and hope for the best. Google’s bots are way too advanced at this point, you have to generate content that the customers want to read and are answering their questions. That’s where we found the most success.

A couple tests different flavours of Kill Cliff beverages within a kitchen setting.
Content is an integral part of Kill Cliff’s marketing strategy to share their story and grow the brand. 

Felix: A content heavy strategy is something you still use today? 

Ryan: A content strategy is always going to be a part of us. We saw some great success through the blog articles, short form content and long form content that we worked on. We had a series we released called the American Spirit series, which really focused on individuals that had an amazing story to tell, whether that was a veteran that got blown up overseas, survived with 80% of his body burned and is now a major advocate for mental health. The series tells their background story and relates that to how our foundation as a brand and our mission as a brand of like we are American brand, and these are the stories of people that are involved.

We won seven Telly Awards with a couple of those videos beating out large production companies like ESPN on some. We saw extremely great success from those. It was a great brand building option without really having to pay a ton of marketing dollars. It was long form content that got shared out through a lot of those influencers and their platforms as well. But all of that is still a strong piece of our content strategy at Kill Cliff.

Why this brand builds everything in-house

Felix: Let’s talk a little bit about the website. Is it built in-house? 

Ryan: Like every growing brand we’ve gone through phases where we’ve outsourced our website for designed development or just operationally for people running it. Now I’m a strong advocate of bringing everything in-house. There’s no one that’s going to do as good a job as someone that’s passionately tied to your brand. At the end of the day, you’re generating revenue for your own brand, rather than using an agency outside that may be more focused on generating revenue and profitability there. 

“There’s no one that’s going to do as good a job as someone that’s passionately tied to your brand.”

I won’t say agencies are always bad there. A lot of times they’re amazing. There’s different levels. There’s the necessary evil ones, the ones that do amazing jobs and help brands grow. There’s plenty of great agencies out there. It’s just in my opinion. What I’ve found is bringing everything in-house eventually is what works best for us. We’ve leveraged those agencies to get everything started and everything working well. Training up someone internally or hiring someone to take over those roles and accelerate our growth from that point.

Felix: What changes have you implemented in the website recently that you attribute to your success?

Ryan: Coincidentally our biggest change was moving to Shopify. No plug needed. We came from a Magento to enterprise cloud environment where we probably spent 60% of our development resources, hours, and money towards break fixes and constant patch release. Constantly it was what’s going on with the server today and spending that much time and effort trying to keep the site running when you’re not really focusing on the profitability and the customer experience side is not a great way to do business. A little over two years ago, we migrated our site to Shopify and have been able to spend a lot more time focusing on the customer experience, the buyer’s journey, and what at the end of the day drives revenue to keep our lights on.

Felix: Are there any apps or tools that you rely on to run the business? 

Ryan: More than we probably have time to discuss today. One of the things I learned early on is you can’t be scared of change and testing applications as long as you handle those testing and use cases appropriately. There’s no shortage of apps and tools on the Shopify marketplace. You’re able to do a good bit of research. We found some great apps on there that worked tremendously well for us early on. We’ve had great success migrating from HubSpot to Klaviyo, our emails–not only our deliverability, but our revenue generated from emails really took off after that point. HubSpot’s a great tool, especially in the B2B world. However, it’s severely lacking in a lot of the direct to consumer requirements and Klaviyo helped fix a lot of that early on.

We’ve since moved on from Klaviyo to a different platform, called Ometria. It’s going to continue to allow us to grow our email marketing with a little bit more advanced segmentation, but Klaviyo really was an amazing stepping stone for us. You also have a lot of tools. One of the things I love about Shopify is that you’re able to implement these tools without a lot of development expertise. Being able to understand the buyer’s journey and integrating up-sells, cross-sells very easily.

One of the drawbacks with our product line early on is we’re an energy company. We’re going to sell you from one flavor to the next. Cross-sells and up-sells became a little complicated. What we found though, is that we already knew internally that we are a lifestyle brand, just like you see the Monster Energy drink clothing in apparel out there. People love our apparel. We actually sell a ton of T-shirts for touring companies and those types of items that are lower costs but have really allowed us to expand our basket size to increase the average order value and build out a form of marketing that wasn’t there before. People wearing your T-shirt around that says a big, bold Kill Cliff, CrossFit is a great conversation starter.

Felix: What is the biggest focus for kill cliff moving into next year? 

Ryan: The biggest level we’re working on now is getting into micro revisions with improving specific KPIs. When you’re out there looking for new customers and figuring out where the best place to spend your marketing dollars is, don’t listen to any customers or any companies that say they’ve got it 100% solved. All those people would be millionaires and retired if they had a perfect attribution model. The key is to be able to understand where your marketing dollars are going and where to turn those dials up, to continue to help that funnel. Too many people rely on third-party data that’s coming from Facebook, Instagram, or some of their programmatic platforms. They rely too much on that without getting a good overlay of, “Okay, is this really where these customers are coming from? Or is it just a piece of that multi-touch attribution model?”

Once you understand where your money’s going and how these customers are coming in, your gross becomes a lot easier. That’s what we’re working on now, which is really fine tuning the customer channels. What those channels look like. What it looks like for our customers coming in through those channels. Most of the time customers hit multiple channels. Being able to apply a weight to those channels to understand which ones we need to invest more in is definitely one of our initiatives.

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