Breaking through the morass of marketing messages has never been harder. Everywhere consumers look—from their inboxes to their internet searches to their social media feeds—retailers and other marketers are bombarding them with ads based on what they’ve looked at online, where they’ve been and what they’re interested in.

That can make it hard for any one message to break through—especially for a digitally native, vertically integrated brand such as Hubble Contacts. The retailer, which launched in 2016, competes online against a number of well-financed, well-established companies such as eyewear giant Essilor International-owned Coastal. And those competitors are selling products produced by large corporations like Johnson & Johnson and Bausch + Lomb Inc.

Although Hubble has raised $73.7 million to date, that’s a far cry from the means 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 since the retailer is attempting to achieve two objectives at the same time: It aims to educate shoppers about its brand and value proposition while also 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 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 wants to find the most lucrative traffic, rather than the cheapest traffic.

“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 regularly runs 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% last year to more than $49 million, according to the Internet Retailer 2019 Top 1000.

While direct response, or performance-based marketing, is only one piece of retailers’ marketing mix, it is increasingly important 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.

With retailers allocating a growing share of their marketing budgets to digital ads, Internet Retailer examined some of the marketing tactics that are driving sales for innovative upstarts such as Hubble and Tortuga Backpacks, as well as more established retailers like Home Depot. While each merchant’s approach is distinct, one common thread runs across…

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