Are Google and Facebook vital to growing a customer base? 1800GunsAndAmmo.com proves that the most popular online customer acquisition options aren't a necessity.

When two primary digital advertising channels are off limits, an online retailer has to track down other ways to gain customers and drive sales. That’s what 1800GunsAndAmmo.com is doing, and owners say business is thriving despite not having access to Google and Facebook Inc. advertising.

The site’s parent company, Webycorp, No. 703 in the Internet Retailer 2017 Top 1000, generated $25 million in web sales last year, according to CEO and co-founder Mikhail Orlov, despite having its guns and ammo marquee site barred from advertising on Google and Facebook.

“Firearms in the digital world are kind of a taboo,” Orlov said. “That’s probably an understatement. But we saw the opportunity in part because other people didn’t want to touch it. We wanted to leverage technology to try to solve some of the problems that other people had when dealing with firearms retailing.”

When it was founded in 2009, Webycorp sold gun accessories, like scopes and other optics, but not guns themselves. This allowed the e-retailer to engage in traditional customer acquisition strategies, which at the time was mainly through Google’s various advertising products.

However, three years ago the company moved into selling firearms, a category that includes guns and ammunition, such as clips and magazines that contain shells. Selling those products meant Webycorp could no longer use those advertising tools. Google, Facebook and other advertisers often restrict firearms retailers.

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“We took a step forward, maybe a little too quickly, and almost right off the bat ran into Google’s advertising policy,” Orlov said. “That is, even though you may not be advertising firearms through the ads, they will not let you run any campaigns if your site showcases guns.”

That is not an absolute rule though—outdoor retailers like Cabela’s (No. 65 in the Top 1000) and Bass Pro Shops (No. 125) are able to post advertisements on Google and Facebook despite offering guns for sale online firearms sales. When Orlov contacted Google, representatives told him that the ads for 1800GunsAndAmmo.com were blocked due to the percentage of firearms sold compared with other items.

Google’s advertising policy clearly bans guns from advertisements. However, it doesn’t explicitly say that sites selling guns can’t advertise non-gun products. A Google representative declined to comment on individual advertisers and specific policies.

Facebook has a similar policy.  It bars direct gun ads on the social platform. While a retailer can sell firearms on a site linked through a Facebook advertisement, the linked page can’t directly lead to firearm products.

Webycorp was conceived as an umbrella company and planned to start up several hyperfocused retail sites, like riflescopes.webyshops.com” or “AR-15.webyshops.com,” before the company found its gun-related niche. This flexible backbone simplified the creation of 1800Gear.com, a sister site that sells a range of outdoor sporting goods, but not guns and ammunition.

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This two-site strategy allows Webycorp to advertise such things as hunting boots and fishing poles sold on 1800Gear.com using traditional customer acquisition strategies. Once a customer is in its system, Webycorp can then use packaging inserts or email marketing to drive traffic to 1800GunsAndAmmo.com.

The company also gains traction for 1800GunsAndAmmo.com through an affiliate linking program, gun forum advertising, careful search engine optimization and by posting gun sales to third-party sites like GunBroker.com. It’s a lot of work, Orlov says, even though firearms makes up a small portion of Webycorp’s total business.

Orlov compares it to gas stations, where most of the profit is made from people buying products other than gas. Many customers are drawn in by the site’s gun sales, but return to the the site to buy other outdoor products like apparel, gear and accessories.

“The firearm business is actually less than 10% of our total business,” Orlov says. “It plays a very important role in bringing a lot of eyeballs, because I think there are a lot of customers that come from that side of the industry and stick around.”

The company may even benefit from the restrictions Google and Facebook place on firearms retailers. A new startup competing in Webycorp’s space would face a steep learning curve to fully match the company’s selection, he says.

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“The industry is very strictly controlled and I don’t anticipate any changes to it,” Orlov said. “That’s a good thing. There is a perception out there that you can just buy a firearm online and there are no checks and you can just get it delivered to your house. That is not true.”

Firearms and ammunition that are sold online don’t ship directly to buyers. Instead, they’re sent to licensed firearms dealers near the buyer’s home, where the final transaction takes place and the dealer can make sure all local regulations are met. This involves a heavy load for customer service agents, who have to contact buyers and verify that stores are properly licensed.

In addition to online sales from its sites, Webycorp sells other goods (not guns or ammunition) on Amazon using Fulfillment by Amazon services, and it sells firearms and accessories from a physical storefront at its Texas warehouse. Amazon makes up about half of the company’s sales.

Selling on Amazon, which started in 2012, helped boost business in a big way, Orlov says. Those sales began as a way to bring in new customers who search Amazon.com first, and the increased volume has allowed Webycorp to increase its purchasing power and lower the prices on the wares it sells.

In the coming months, the company plans to open a web store, Amazon page and physical location focused on runners. The new store will sell shoes, apparel and other gear for sprinters, marathoners and joggers. While it may seem like a strange departure from guns and scopes and ammunition, the lessons Orlov and his team have learned in marketing firearms could boost its potential in the world of running.

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“Running is a community-focused sport,” Orlov says. “It’s not just product—runners like to have a place to run from, a gathering place. And if that place can offer gear at the same time? That’s a bonus.”

The company’s history of building a customer base through communities, such as forums and affiliate marketing can help too. Add that to straightforward shipping and no restrictions on traditional online advertising options, and Webycorp’s running business could take off like a shot from the starting line.

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