Business-to-Consumer Case Story: Stylin Online

One of the first opportunities I had to really apply my theories of Satellite Marketing to a large-scale audience was for an online retailer based in Memphis, Michigan, that sold Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirts. The company is called Stylin Online.

History: In 1995, with a loan from his grandfather, James Cucchiara founded Stylin Online and turned his childhood love of comics into having his own business. He used a favorite high school doodle as a logo, launched his website using Yahoo! E-commerce, and his business grew by leaps and bounds (just like in ).  Online sales grew from zero, and James began to sell licensed products directly to comic fans at local events and conventions across the country.

Tstylin-online-oval-icon_400x400oday: Stylin Online has become one of the biggest names in pop culture apparel and accessories, with over 200,000 SKU’s of t-shirts, hoodies, hats and everything else to which you can apply a licensed logo. From The A-Team to Zelda – and everything in between – Stylin Online sells something from everything you loved growing up as a kid.

Issue: Then the market changed, and sales faltered.  Big retailers started carrying parody merchandise, and more vendors attended events.  The economy dropped and took discretionary spending with it, a bad sign for a CEO who depended on the sale of superhero t-shirts and horror movie hoodies for his livelihood.  Discount promotions kept Stylin Online alive, but the discounts cut into his profit margin.

At conferences and online, James commiserated with his colleagues who were experiencing similar challenges, and he kept hearing how they were looking to social media to change their business.  He heard how he could connect with his fans, create brand loyalists and revive company sales, but he had no idea where to start.  He was an expert in apparel and in pop comic culture, not in social media.  He needed help.

At the same time, I had just started teaching workshops on social media in San Diego. A mutual friend who attended one of my workshops recommended James contact me to see if something made sense. While at the wheel of a 40-foot-long RV and leading a three-truck caravan, James called me (not hands-free) and spent the next four hours discussing his business and his goals for social media, asking question after question of how I could help.

Vision: James told me, “We’ve built a good company with e-commerce, email and events, but we don’t know anything about social media. I don’t have time to learn something new, and I don’t have people in-house that can handle this. I want someone to tell me what I need to know, help me figure out what my company should do, and then take care of it.”

I told him about our company and the story about using satellites as a metaphor for how people engage with social media. James got it, and with a simple “Sounds like a plan,” he authorized one of our most successful working relationships.


1: Identifying The Goals


James told me his primary goal was to drive more targeted traffic to the website. Stylin Online had loyal customers who bought from them when they bought, but the company needed more new customers to maintain growth. James knew his site metrics (how well his website performed) and his visitor-to-purchase ratio (how many people it took to visit his site to generate X amount of revenue) – he just needed more people.

In the short-term, we were charged with increasing the number of Facebook Fan Page fans. More fans would increase the number of opt-in prospects for our sales and marketing campaigns. A bigger fan base of brand-loyal shoppers would mean more people to market online purchases toward and more people that would know about the convention appearances (i.e., Stylin Online was coming to a convention near you!). The more Facebook fans we had, the more people would see our messages, and a predictable percentage would turn into customers (that’s how it worked in 2009).

Our next goal was to build the brand. Honestly, you can find a Spiderman t-shirt anywhere – but why were fans going to buy a commodity product from Stylin Online? We had to give them a reason.

  1. Increase traffic to the online store.
  2. Traffic measured by Google Analytics (quantitative)
  3. Measure sources impacted by communications plan (monthly)
  4. Build audience on Facebook Fan Page
  5. Growth measured by Facebook (quantitative)
  6. Measure fan growth (monthly)
  7. Build the Stylin Online Brand
  8. Develop Integrated Marketing Communications
  9. Measure Positive Response (Qualitative)


2: Understanding The Audience


We surveyed current customers and Facebook fans regarding their attraction to the Stylin Online brand, the website, products and the social media community, We identified various strategies that successful brands used to grow their Facebook fan base, including loyalty discounts, early access to exclusive products and pictures of fans and celebrities from the conventions.

The target audience for Stylin Online is the fans of pop culture. Pop culture fans are interested, loyal and zealous in their support of the actors, heroes and intellectual property they have connected with. Fans also look for other fans to discuss the past, to share the new and to convert those who have not come on board with what they believe is the obvious choice in a sea of entertainment.

These fans can be categorized as “die-hard” fans, the men and women (18-55) from across the United States who stand in line for tickets, who never miss an opening weekend and who can recount line after line from their favorite villain or superhero from every episode ever made. They commonly demonstrate their fandom in their fashion via t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats and accessories, representing the very best of comics, television, movies, sci-fi, horror, anime, cartoons, Disney, video games and music.

We learned that our products were well regarded across niche communities, and throughout every convention. Online fan testimonials, celebrity attraction and media coverage demonstrated an interest in the brand and its 200,000 SKU inventory.


3: Creating the Strategy


Managed from an ever-expanding warehouse, Stylin Online retails their products at more than 50 annual fan and comic conventions across the United States and abroad. With each mobile store measuring 20’x 40’ and 20’ high, we dubbed each a “Tower of T-Shirts” and presented them collectively as “Your Pop Culture Department Store™” – a tangible destination.

We knew that one of Stylin Online’s strengths had been their selection of products with repeat customers online and with event organizers on the convention circuit. Organizers had a vendor that provided what the fans were looking for, and their attendance at conventions each year had established Stylin Online as a must-have vendor. The expected relationships followed, and his social capital grew with convention organizers at every show. The question was, “How can we leverage this for our mutual gain?”

Each convention would also put the company in the same room with media personalities and celebrities, many of which shopped our store. We found we had access to an array of celebrity customers associated with many of the products in our inventory, and that they would be willing to discuss their roles and experiences behind-the-scenes and during the making of their TV show, movie or comic. We discussed our concepts with them and their managers to address: “How can we help promote your celebrity appearance?”

Our experience with sharing celebrity pictures had been positive throughout the social media platform and had now progressed to video “shout-outs” with great reactions from their respective fans.  We started by sharing the photos from the warehouse, then photos from the conventions. Every so often, we’d get photos of James with a celebrity inside the Tower of T-Shirts from a show he sold merchandise from. They’d hold up a t-shirt or put one on and smile for the camera, providing unique and original content on a regular basis.

We discussed our approach with the celebrity media we had developed relationships with during award show and celebrity gift suites in Hollywood (yes, the Hollywood, a long way from Memphis). They shared what they liked about videos, fans and interviews as well as what they did not. Collectively, it was a wealth of information.

The strategy was to create a video marketing vehicle to activate the passion of a fan (attract their attention), provide new content (draw them into a discussion) and to encourage discussion (hold their attention over a period of time).

This strategy would be designed to target not only current Stylin Online fans (increase the per ticket sale), but to also gain exposure with those unaware of Stylin Online (i.e., new customers).

We decided to make I am stylin’ | Adventures in Pop Culture a web-based show, featuring celebrity interviews, award show gift suites, comic conventions and fan experiences. As a stand-alone media property sponsored by Stylin Online, the company was prominent on every episode, including branding, product placement, trial / implementation and content development.


4: Selecting Social Media


We built a Facebook presence for Stylin Online: a fan page for the company, a personnel profile for James, and a unique Facebook event for each convention appearance.

We built off the pilot from the Anaheim Comic Con, updated during the Motor City Comic Con and fine-tuned for the San Diego Comic Con (the largest event of its type in the world). Our original distribution included the expected YouTube and Facebook, but as popularity grew, so did the popularity of other video networks, like Veoh, Vimeo and MetaCafe. We identified an opportunity to reduce our time to market with a distribution network, a single source that would distribute to multiple video sites.

To build the audience for the show, we took the show to where the audience was already watching videos just like ours.

Uploading to YouTube took the same time as it did to upload to – it just sent it out to 21 sites. The distribution network was also expanded to (35) satellites utilizing video services, blogs and social media including:

  • AOL Video
  • Blinkx
  • iamstylin
  • StylinOnline
  • Boxee
  • Daily Motion
  • DivX TV
  • eBaums World
  • Facebook
  • MetaCafe
  • Mefeedia
  • GrindTV
  • Internet Archive
  • iTunes
  • Twitter
  • Sony BVL
  • StupidVideos
  • Yahoo Video
  • Roku
  • Samsung
  • Sevenload
  • Twitter
  • Veoh
  • VideoJug
  • Vimeo
  • Vizio
  • Vodpod
  • YouTube
  • Zoopy


5: Building Engagement 


Commercials at the end of an episode and text included in the video description were perceived as valuable to the sponsor, but front and center above the “show more” and always visible to a visitor was the “Sponsored by – Watch this episode for a promo code!”

The description copy also evolved to include a link to those we interviewed. It was a courtesy to those who took the time – a way for their fans to learn more – and a demonstration of the types of things we did for those who would grant us an interview in the future. They participate in our program, and we promote them to our growing audience. The quid pro quo was demonstrated, which made the opportunities come easier.

Following the debut of the San Diego Comic Con episodes, the show was granted media credentials to every event. This increased the credibility of the show and provided additional access and information previously unavailable (hype begets hype).

We posted videos, fans made comments. We asked questions, fans offered answers and opinions. When we posted the interview list in advance, we collected questions fans wanted to ask – and we used their questions to conduct the interview. We gave the question and the fan’s name to the celebrity and let them answer directly.

This “Content Marketing” from the conventions and events provided various media to initiate conversations, to share content and to collaborate on the events our audience is interested in discussing. This quid pro quo over time helped develop the brand, its social capital and, more importantly, the ongoing customer relationship.

With simple email marketing to his customer list, we quickly grew the Facebook Fan Page to 1,000, then 2,000 and then up to 5,000!

Then we hit a wall.

For every 100 qualified contacts Stylin Online gained, they lost another 100. Five-thousand fluctuating fans wasn’t going to change his sales. In a candid conversation with me, James said, “If you guys can’t move the needle any farther, then I can’t justify the investment.” We were going to lose this account, and James would be no better off than when he had first called.

I went back to my team and asked the hard question: “What are we doing wrong?” With a customer list of 125,000 emails and 500 million people on Facebook (at the time) we had to do better than 5,000 fans.  We’re the experts; how could we fix this? Then it hit me! We made a classic marketing mistake: we set the wrong goal!  James didn’t need “likes” on his Facebook page.  He needed to find Facebook users who were interested in buying his products.


6: Communications Planning


The model for weekly communication had evolved over time to accommodate the wide range of fans in the audience. Each category was represented (comics, television, movies, sci-fi, horror, anime, cartoons, Disney, video games and music), and fans reacted when they were provided content that appealed to their particular interest. The weekly model provided the foundation for the monthly, and the monthly for the year in advance.

We also developed a model for conventions that included pre-event, event and post-event marketing. We contacted celebrities in advance to coordinate public relations opportunities, exchange social media pleasantries and plan the pre-production of the show. As a new convention was added to the calendar, the model was applied to the communications plan.

We had a great plan for engagement; we just needed more people to engage.

We identified Facebook Advertising as an additional channel for attracting new Facebook Fans. With the ability to target demographics (age, gender) and areas of self-declared interest (comics, television, movies, sci-fi, horror, anime, cartoons, Disney, video games and music) we knew we could isolate the prospects for subject-specific messaging and effectively present the case for why they should “like” Stylin Online.

We invested $100 to test a Facebook ad campaign that targeted two of the largest niche customers: Marvel and DC Comics. The ads were basic, using the title from the fan page name as its headline (Stylin Online). They included a 110 x 80-pixel image and 135 characters of text. The opportunity for creativity was limited to the 100-or-so characters of text, including a simple offer: “Like our page to connect with other fans, just like you.”


7: Measuring Performance


The 200,000-SKU-product inventory provided a seemingly endless library of licensed imagery – a visual sample of the product line Stylin Online had available for each fan. The license to sell the shirts allowed us to use the product in its promotion. Although the thumbnails were small, the images of superhero emblems and character sketches greatly resonated with fans, and clicks started coming faster than we could track them. New fans literally came with every browser refresh, peaking one day at 10,000 new fans!

We employed common “best practices” for advertising strategy (get their attention, get them to do something) and A/B tested countless versions of ad copy and images.  The activity of the campaign was monitored directly within Facebook, reporting reach, frequency, impressions, click-thru rates and budgets for the bidding.

<<Sidebar: A/B testing is a simple method for testing which of two ads performs better: A or B? Two identical ads, except for one element: The picture, the headline, or the call-to-action – but just one thing at a time. Run the two ads to the same sample size and compare the results; one usually performs better.  Take that performing ad and change one element, then run two ads again. This constant testing and refinement will provide ads that work and the data to prove the ROI (or lack thereof).>>

Once we identified the strategy that worked both for the specific medium of Facebook ads and for our specific fan base, we invested heavily in running concurrent campaigns, monitoring and adjusting bid rates accordingly. Each ad generated a different bid range although they shared a common daily budget. As an ad’s performance declined, a new ad was released to replace it. Cost per clicks (likes) ranged as much as $0.42 and as low as $0.04 per new fan.

More clicks increased our investment, and our investments kept showing a return. 10,000 fans. 50,000 fans. 100,000 fans! After investing just over $6,000, Stylin Online had more than 200,000 Facebook fans from all over the world – and they were all buying our product!


From the quantitative…

Over 18-months we produced 180 episodes of I am stylin / Adventures in Pop Culture with an average program length of six minutes. Each episode includes a link to the online store, links to the show’s website and product(s) included in the episode. These links multiplied by the total number of distribution points has made a dramatic impact on the SEO (Search Engine Optimization) the client receives in Google, etc.

We learned that the longer the video the less people viewed the entire show. As expected, total views of each episode was a monitored metric, ranging from hundreds to thousands per social media profile (times 35 profiles), depending on the subject matter and quality of the interview. Actor Jon Bernthal from The Walking Dead on AMC answering fan questions from the Stylin Online Facebook Fan page was a crowd favorite on the show from Chicago’s C2E2 Convention on the I am stylin YouTube channel, while Academy Award Nominated Actor Edward James Olmos from Atlanta’s DragonCon did not perform well on DailyMotion (but did on other sites). The total views were indicative of how well coupon codes inside each episode would be redeemed (10% off next order, free shipping, etc): More views, more redemptions during a sale.

Stylin Online became a brand, and “I am stylin” was a ticket into anywhere in pop culture. People wanted to be on our show, and our audience wanted to watch. The resulting impact of the client’s SEO (Search Engine Optimization) was dramatic to say the least. Thirty-five websites across the Internet using matching keywords and sharing a single link helped get Stylin Online in front of other advertisers for the same products (They’re a retailer, not a wholesaler) and delivered new customers.

Now, every producer secretly hopes his or her efforts will become a million-view Internet sensation, but we were more pragmatic about the opportunity, especially over time. We considered the number of videos on the number of sites, with the number of views, and the number of visits to the website from a video. We also considered that these resources would be available online, and in any search, until we took them down or they were removed.

We started the Stylin Online fan page with just under 5,500 fans July 1, 2010, and exceeded 225,000 by December 1, 2010, an increase of just under 220,000 new fans in only five months. The Facebook Fan Page has become the third largest source of traffic for, after Google search and the direct URL*.


From the qualitative…

In less than two years, we repackaged the company and established the Stylin Online brand as “Your Pop Culture Department Store” and as a leader in the pop culture retail industry. As William Shatner said after landing his helicopter on the deck of the USS Midway en route to the San Diego Comic Con, “Mission Accomplished.”



*Statistics provided by Google Analytics over the period reported.