With limited resources the contacts retailer aims to capitalize on the one advantage it has: Its ability to filter and qualify paid social traffic.

When it comes to selling contacts online, Hubble Contacts faces a host of challenges. To start, the digitally native, vertically integrated contacts brand, which launched in 2016, competes online against a number of well-financed, well-established companies, such as eyewear giant Essilor International-owned Coastal, No. 58 in the Internet Retailer 2018 Top 1000. And those competitors are selling products produced by giant corporations like Johnson & Johnson and Bausch + Lomb.

While Hubble has raised $73.7 million to date, that’s a far cry from the resources of its competitors.

“We don’t have the resources to be everywhere at once,” says Jesse Horwitz, the retailer’s co-CEO and co-founder. “That forces us to think about the one massive advantage we have: We can properly filter and qualify paid social traffic.”

However, that’s easier said than done, especially since the retailer is attempting to achieve two objectives at the same time: It has to educate shoppers about its brand and value proposition at the same time that it’s seeking to drive a direct sale.

While many of the large companies that Hubble competes with opt for massive scale and reach on social media, Hubble has focused squarely on finding ways to optimize its audience and messaging to drive direct sales on Facebook, Instagram and other social networks, he says. The net result is it aims to find the most lucrative traffic, rather than the cheapest traffic.

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“Our main focus is whether the traffic we’re driving has reasonable odds of converting,” he says. “If it doesn’t, we figure out how to turn off that pipeline, then figure out how to turn on the pipeline that is likely to buy.”

Because the process of determining which combination of creative, audience targeting and landing pages will drive users to click and buy is constantly evolving, the retailer is always running multiple tests with tens or hundreds of dollars. The approach appears to be working: the retailer’s sales soared an Internet Retailer-estimated 145.3% in 2018 to more than $49 million, according to the forthcoming Internet Retailer 2019 Top 1000.

While direct response, or performance-based marketing, is only a piece of the retailers’ marketing mix, it is an increasingly important one as ad dollars shift and merchants look to assess the direct impact of their ad spending. There’s little question that most retailers are boosting their digital ad spending; 70.9% of retailers surveyed in Internet Retailer’s fourth-annual Digital Marketing Survey increased their overall digital marketing budgets last year—including 22.1% of respondents who boosted their spending more than 20%. And U.S. retailers’ digital ad spending is expected to rise another 17.4% this year, according to a recent forecast by research firm eMarketer Inc.

What drives shoppers to click

There’s little rhyme or reason as to what creative works for Hubble, Horwitz says. “We have no idea what will work, it’s often random,” he says. One week an ad featuring a woman pushing a contact lens on her hand will work well, then it will suddenly stop working. Another week an ad featuring a “Brady Bunch”-like grid with eyeballs blinking will work, then it will abruptly stop working.

However, because it’s cheap and easy to produce a Facebook ad, the retailer can test “all sorts of weird stuff,” he says. “We try out any number of oddball ideas and see what works. Our winning tests can keep driving sales while we figure out what will work next.”

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The retailer used to regularly test all sorts of targeting methods. For example, it might aim ads at women who like meal-kit retailer Blue Apron’s Facebook page or men who like the Boston Red Sox. However, those types of targeting parameters have become less important over the past few years as it has enabled Facebook’s advertising algorithm to optimize for those consumers most likely to make a purchase.

That’s the fruition of its long-standing relationship with Facebook. When Hubble got set to launch its business online, it used Facebook’s mobile-only lead ads, which allow advertisers to collect information from consumers directly within an ad. When a consumer clicked on the ad, her name and email is pre-populated with information from her Facebook profile and she can then hit submit without leaving Facebook. The ads, which featured an image of a single Hubble contact lens balancing on a fingertip, encouraged consumers to sign up to be informed of the Hubble Contacts launch. The lead ads click into a context card that offered more information on the lenses, which prompted people to click “Sign up” to learn more.

Lead ads allowed Hubble Contact to build an email list of people who had already shown interest in the product. It could then target consumers on the list—and, using Facebook’s Lookalike Audiences, it could also reach those who shared traits with those consumers—while optimizing its ads for conversions.

Now the retailer’s conversion-focused campaigns drive consumers to HubbleContacts.com, where they can purchase contact lenses or find an optometrist who can fit them with Hubble lenses. The approach allows Hubble to set broad parameters—everyone in the United States between 18 and 65 years old—and then allow Facebook’s algorithm to optimize based on who clicks and buys.

With a finite number of prospective customers, Hubble is on a constant search for what will drive someone to click and buy. “There are only so many people we can target with ads,” Horwitz says. “To keep growing, we have to constantly be learning from our ads, responding to what we’ve learned and then coming up with new ideas to hit the same population from a different angle to avoid getting stale.”

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Hubble’s embrace of social media advertising has been practical given that its competitors have been refining their search marketing strategies for years, Horwitz says. “Search is a mature channel,” he says. “Our competitors have been colonizing search engine marketing and optimization for 15, 20 years.”

Those competitors have established search marketing teams that enable them to capitalize when Google and Bing roll out new tools. That’s limited Hubble’s ability to leverage Google’s advanced targeting tools, such as Customer Match, which lets a retailer upload its email lists to find its customers when they search on Google.

But that’s OK, Horwitz says, given that social media is better suited to retailers looking to build their brand. “When consumers use search, they’re often focused on price,” he says. “That makes it hard for us. We need to tell our story.”

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