Episode #25

Ramon Van Meer from Alpha Paw

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In this episode of Beyond the Inbox, Sam talks with Ramon Van Meer, CEO and founder of Alpha Paw, about marketing tactics and strategies for their pet products e-commerce business. Ramon shares his expertise in content marketing, email campaigns, and differentiation strategies.

Ramon discusses the challenges faced by his company during the COVID-19 pandemic and how they adapted to changes in the pet industry. He also delves into the importance of focusing on bottom-line profitability and staying lean in order to weather macroeconomic changes.

One of the key marketing tactics that Ramon discusses is content marketing. He explains that Alpha Paw created a blog with different guides for different dog breeds, which helped drive traffic to their website through SEO. However, he admits that the conversion rate of the blog traffic was not very good, so they pivoted to lead generation for pet insurance companies and monetized the traffic through display banner ads.

Ramon also talks about the importance of email campaigns and automation. He explains that they have different automations in place depending on what product a customer buys, and they also send newsletters and reminders for reordering products. He emphasizes the importance of staying on point with email campaigns and creating campaigns that address specific pain points of pet owners.

Another marketing strategy that Ramon discusses is differentiation. He explains that Alpha Paw tried to create breed-specific mini-websites, but the backend of the operations was a nightmare. Instead, they decided to focus on fewer products with more depth to them. He emphasizes the importance of understanding the specific pain points of customers and creating products and messaging that address those pain points.

Finally, Ramon talks about how he stays up-to-date with marketing trends and tactics. He mentions following Nick Sharma on Twitter and reading his newsletter, as well as being in WhatsApp groups with other founders where they share marketing insights and strategies.

Overall, Ramon provides valuable insights into the world of pet product e-commerce and the importance of marketing tactics such as content marketing, email campaigns, and differentiation. He also emphasizes the importance of staying lean and focusing on profitability in uncertain times.

Show Notes

  • (00:00) Introduction
  • (00:53) Ramon Van Meer's background and Alpha Paw's mission
  • (02:40) Rebranding Alpha Paw to Paw Ramp
  • (04:20) Conversion rates and the importance of understanding user needs
  • (05:17) Conversion rate from first-time visitor to first-time customer
  • (06:25) Alpha Paw's content strategy and guides for different dog breeds
  • (08:11) Monetizing traffic through lead generation for pet insurance companies and display banner ads
  • (09:50) Alpha Paw's marketing strategy and addressing specific pain points for dog owners
  • (12:41) Alpha Paw's email marketing tactics and automation
  • (16:34) Email campaigns and Mother's Day campaign
  • (18:25) Ramon Van Meer's role in Alpha Paw and focusing on growth marketing
  • (19:58) Marketing people Ramon Van Meer looks up to and staying abreast of new trends
  • (21:41) COVID-19's impact on Alpha Paw and adapting to changes in the pet industry
  • (24:12) Alpha Paw's focus on fewer products with greater depth
  • (27:24) Staying lean and focusing on channels that companies own
  • (28:28) Where to learn more about Alpha Paw


Read the transcript:

Sam (00:01): Ramon, welcome to Beyond the Inbox. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us.

Ramon (00:06): Yeah, thank you for having me. It's awesome.

Sam (00:08): Can you tell us about your background and how you got involved in the pet industry?

Ramon (00:15): Yeah. I've been buying and selling internet businesses for 13, 14 years. Started very small wrote a, a personal blog, not a personal blog, but a small blog. Sold it on flippa.com for 500, bought another B or another website for 500. Grew that and then sold it for 2000, you know, very small acquisitions. And then they became bigger and bigger where in 2015 or 16 started a blog about soap operas the daytime TV shows and grew that into 35 million pages a month. Sold that business 2018. And then I bought my current business called Alpha pa. It's a pet e-commerce business with the proceeds of my previous exit. So I've been doing internet marketing for a very long time. From email to seo, to online pr. I've done it, done or tried it. Almost everything.

Sam (01:30): I have so many follow up questions. I wanna ask you about the origins of Alpha Port. I know it was originally purchased for, for engine $25,000. It was Sausage Dog Central. And can you tell us about the specific problem that this website solved?

Ramon (01:46): Yeah. I didn't actually notice when I looked at the listing, I knew that I wanted to get into the pet space, so I was looking for an e-commerce in the pet space. And then I came across this listing, salt Dog Central, and it was a website towards Dax. It's a breed, it's a breed that's pretty small, small legs, apparently small pets or small do dogs have joint and spine issues because when they jump on and off furniture like sofas and beds it's really bad for their joints. It's very bad for their spine. It's almost similar. Like if you and I basically every day a hundred times, like jump from one floor to another, eventually it's gonna hurt our, our our joints. So Sausage Dock Central designed a dock ramp. It's like a very pretty simple product. It's a ramp that's, you know, a dog can walk on and off beds or sofas. So yeah, when I looked at, it's like, what is this? Like who would a ramp? Because I was thinking like, oh, this is just for lazy dogs that don't wanna jump on sofas, but it's actually to prevent injuries. Also very small dogs actually cannot physically jump because it's too high or a lot of our customers are also have overweight or very old dogs that cannot just, they're too, you know, overweight or too old to make a jump.

(03:28): So that's that was the, the, the website or the business I bought.

Sam (03:33): And can you tell me about the decision to rebrand Alpha Port and to pivot somewhat to what you're doing now?

Ramon (03:42): Yeah. and yeah, there was, we've done some testing and like, okay, how can we scale this? When I bought it was Sasha's Dark Central, and it was very towards the accents, but the Dins only have, you know, 6 million dins are in the United States. And this product also can be used by any other, by many other breeds or could be super helpful. So if okay, we keep it Da Sar Duck Central, there's gonna be like sort of a ceiling that we're gonna hit. So we, you know, we thought like rebranding it to something more generic so that we can, you know, that's when we came up with the Paw ramp that is basically for, you know, any dog breed and market to eats dark grid. What is interesting though, like so sometimes I do think the conversion rate was higher when we were cy dark central.com. No matter what we tried, we've never been able to beat the conversion rates again. And I think the reason why it's when it was Social Dog Central, and this is the ramp for D accents when a person that owns the Dachshund came was like, oh, this ramp is made for my dog, for my breed. And they really, I think that's really you know, was the reason why the conversion rate was always higher

Sam (05:13): And that was conversion rate from first time visitor to first time customer.

Ramon (05:17): Yeah. Yeah. So sometimes I think like, and we've, we've thought about it like, okay, instead of doing Alpha PA that basically sells or caters to Al Breeds is to create breed specific mini websites. And we've did some testing, but like the like the operations, the backend was such a nightmare because you need, you know, multiple Shopify accounts. You need multiple email platform accounts, text message, like everything. You need a new account. And in, in some cases, they could bundle it up, but it was just like, you know, you need to create different emails for each mini website. And so yeah, the manpower and the bandwidth was was not worth it for us at the moment.

Sam (06:06): It's interesting you mention the idea for having these mini websites, because one thing that really stands out to me when I go on the website is your content strategy. And I look at the blog and how you have different guides for different breeds, and I would love to know more about your strategy behind what you're doing there.

Ramon (06:25): Yeah. my background is, you know, internet marketing in general, but mostly content you know, ran a bunch of content sites. And so I wanted to use that, you know, expertise to drive traffic, SEO traffic to our DTC websites, e-commerce. So the idea was like, okay, there's tons of search volume of people that's searching for search. Can my dog eat strawberries? My dog keeps, you know, barking at the lights, what can I do? It's just, you know, millions of monthly search volume across all the keywords. The idea was we rank, we we create solid content strategy. We rank for these keywords, person reads the article, we build trust, and then they see our products and then like, Hey, let's also buy it now. Theory and, and, and realities, sometimes it doesn't always work. And that's, you know, the beauty of internet marketing is always, you always have to keep testing. The conversion rate of the blog traffic is very bad. It's yeah, so we pivoted a little bit where we still focus on, you know, ranking more pages in Google and other search engines, but instead of trying to convert that traffic into a buyer of one of our physical products, we do lead gen for pet insurance companies. We do, you know, we have banners, you know, we do display banner ads. So we monetize the traffic different ways.

Sam (08:11): That's so interesting because I thought you were going to say that you are converting first time visitors into email subscribers and then sending them down a funnel. Is that something you've considered?

Ramon (08:22): So we, we do that. So we've tried, for example, we have a dog food recall email list where dog food brands all the time have an issue and then they have to be recalled. And so you can join this newsletter and every time there's a nationwide or like there's a big recall for a specific dog food brand, you would get a notification like, Hey, be careful dog food, brand X just had to recall, you know, all the foods between these dates. So we have different type of, of, of newsletters that we try to, you know, grow and, but still it's, it's a very it's a long funnel basically. So we do that, but even with that, the conversion rate is not, not as, you know, not as good as, you know, buy intent traffic or buy intent, even search traffic. So yeah,

Sam (09:27): I imagine in the long term, all this content is going to serve you very well from a branding perspective. Maybe certain pet owners are searching for different queries and they always see alpha porn and think, Hey, every time I go on this website, I can see they have experts that are adding the content as well. I imagine that it's only gonna serve you in the long term.

Ramon (09:50): Yeah, yeah. I think there's also tons of indirect, you know advantages to, to focus on content. Like you said, it's branding authority it's like, you know, maybe a person doesn't buy right away, but you know, maybe you know this, see their ad. Like we retarget people that visit the, at the blog and we retarget them with our products. You know, we do have people sign up for a newsletter. And you know, I think for any business, you know, the more distribution you can get especially diversified, the better, right? So not focusing on only just Facebook ads or Instagram ads or just influencers we try to really, you know, have a diverse ch you know, diverse channels.

Sam (10:40): You mentioned retargeting and Facebook ads. What type of copying creative is working well for you?

Ramon (10:47): Oh that it changes every week. But in general, what have worked you know, in, in, in, in, in just general in the last couple years is, like for us, for example, it also depends on the product. So we have different types of product with Rams, we, but we sell P pads and we sell also beds and blankets. So the messaging is all different, but in our case, the best always works when you point out a problem. And so for example, in the Rams, it's like, hey did you know X percent of DAX owner or DAXs get a disease called I B D D one in three? Right? So over 30% of DAXs get ibd D the surgery is very painful, very long recovery and cost a lot of money can cost up to 8,000. Here we are not claiming this can cure or prevent a hundred percent, but you know, one of the reasons that a gets I B D or the chances are higher is when they jump on and off furniture, here's a solution, right?

(11:59): So here's the problem. This could cost a lot of money and a lot of pain and, and, and tears. Here's a solution or is like, here's a product that could help minimize the chances. So those always work. And you know, same with we have a dog seat you know, a dog basket for in the car with a car seat, you know, showing, you know what, you know, dogs can jump out of windows and or if there's an accident, they will fly through the, the windshield or, you know those type of ads work best for us.

Sam (12:41): I really love that you address this a hyper-specific pain point, because this leads into my next question. I'm just gonna ask or will ask rather, how Alpha Port differentiates itself from its competitors. And from my perspective, sat here listening to you, I feel like, wow, you really understand my potential pain points as a dog owner rather than a big retailer that is simply competing on price or something like that.

Ramon (13:08): Yeah, yeah. And the, like, the Ram for example, was designed by people that had the specific pain point. Like they had several accents, they dealt with I B D D and it's, it's, yeah, I, but it really depends on the product. With PPAs, for example, yeah, there's pain points in the sense of like, oh man my dog peed again. It's not as severe as a, you know, IBD or others. So that then the PPAs messaging is a little bit lighter, right? Like is, Hey, are you also sick and tired of, you know, walking in your house smelling, you know, like a public bathroom? Here's a solution.

Sam (13:54): I wanna ask you a little bit about specific email marketing tactics that are particularly effective for you. When someone lands on the website for the first time and they make a purchase, what type of automations are they going through when they become a first time customer?

Ramon (14:09): Yeah, so we, we have several depending on what product you buy. So if you buy a ramp, we know and because we also ask, you know, the breed and all the information. So if it's a ramp, then you get in a different flow where we talk about other products that might be interested to you. So if it's a ramp you're concerned about I B D D, especially if you have a smaller pet. So then we talk a little bit more about supplements and other, and we also do like several emails about actually trying to, you know, provide value of like, here are other tips that you can do on your own, right? Like making sure that your pet gets enough exercise every day, making sure that diet is, you know, healthy and diverse and we don't sell, you know, food for them, but, you know, given those tips for them if but if you buy a ppa, then you get, go into more generic type flow where we just talk about, you know, dogs in general and, and specific products. So yeah, that's what we, we try to do.

Sam (15:27): What about any automations around behavior? So if I make a purchase from you today and I don't make another purchase for 30, 60 days or whatever it might be, do you have something like that in place?

Ramon (15:39): Yes. I don't know on the top of my head because I don't do them day to day account managing. But yeah, we have all these automation in place. Also, if we, if you buy a box of Pee pads, we know you have one dog, we know what it, how long the average person, you know, takes before they need another box. So then we'll, we send reminders like, Hey reminder of reordering a box of pee pads or a box of, you know, supplements. And we send reminders based on that as well.

Sam (16:16): I'm going through your funnel right now and I'm getting your emails and it's really nice to see you are so on point with your email marketing, especially your campaigns. I think I received a Mother's Day campaign quite recently. Can you talk a little bit about how you think about email campaigns, how often you send them and everything in between?

Ramon (16:34): Yeah. we send them as many times as possible that we can get away with <laugh> without of course butchering our, the quality of our list. You know, if I, if I had a wish we could send, you know, several times a day but we, we try to, we try to find a good balance of creating or giving value like, or, you know, feel good stories. So we also send out every week like an email newsletter with, you know, the best blogs or articles of that day. And it could be like, you know, here's a story of this puppy, you know that was in a shelter and walked, you know, 200 miles back to their previous owners. Like, those type of feel good stories. Two stories about, we do a lot of donations. We've, you know, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in pet foods for shelters.

(17:34): So, you know, we, we talk about that in our emails as well. And then the typical standard things that a lot of DTC comp brands do is like, okay, mother's day's coming up. So now we, you know, now we are pushing that, for example after Mother's Day, I don't know what holidays after Mother's Day, but then, you know, we talk a little bit more about those the end of the day. A lot of, for us at least, I know it's a bad thing. There are still what works best is discounts, right? Like price pricing unfortunately.

Sam (18:13): You mentioned you have a team and I'm curious how many are on the team and when are you in your genius zone? When do you enjoy or where are it, do you enjoy spending most of your time right now?

Ramon (18:25): Yeah, we have a very small team with five people total, with a couple freelancers here and there. You know, customer support is freelancers but we have a five in-house people. And we, I personally like the growth side, like marketing side of, you know, coming up with, you know, creative ways of like, how can we, you know, get more traffic to the website or targeted traffic to the website, how can we convert that those people? You know, we, we did a Dax accent quiz, for example, in Facebook Messenger where like, Hey, how, how much do you know about DAXs? And then it opens a flow in Facebook Messenger and then asks, you know, questions like, you know, multiple choice questions of like, you know, where does the Dax and breathe comes from? And then, you know, people answer that. And then, you know, at the end we ask, you know, is it good for your dog for Dion to jump on and off furniture? And then, then we talk about like how bad that is, and then we talk about, Hey here's the solution, here's the ramp, check it out. So those things, you know, I enjoy do trying to work on those type of strategies.

Sam (19:51): Who are some of the marketing people you look up to? How do you stay abreast of what's working today?

Ramon (19:58): Oh, that's a good question. Cuz there's like multiple people in different, you know fields. I follow a lot on Twitter, like I get so much value from Twitter. So if you're not on Twitter definitely recommend that. And I follow, I, and I have a lot of friends that are founders, you know, direct to consumers, so I'm in different type of WhatsApp groups with other founders, and I think that's super valuable of like, hey, because we are, because it's a closed group, people are a little bit more open to, you know, tell their secrets of what's working because none of us compete directly with each other. So people are a little bit more open like, oh, we, the last two weeks we've done X, Y, Z, and it's, you know, these are the results. It's amazing. You guys should try to but yeah, I like I like Nick Sharma. He, you know, he, he writes a News weekly newsletter too. That's super helpful for us. Yeah. who else actually, yeah, I think my answer is stay with Nicks Shamar for now. Yeah,

Sam (21:16): Nick Shamar is great. And Ramon, I've read some of your Freds as well, and I really enjoyed them, especially the one about you purchasing the WWE funds fan blog. That was an interesting read as well. Yeah, so, so switching gears a little bit I wanted to ask you, you bought the website several years ago now, and how has the pet industry evolved over time and how has Alpha Port adapted to these changes?

Ramon (21:41): Yeah, well, we had covid, so I bought it in 2018. And the first two years were amazing. Everything was, you know, scaling like crazy, couldn't keep up, and then Covid happened, and then in the beginning it was still good because more people had to shop more online, right? Like they couldn't buy their PPAs at the supermarket or, or pet store. I dunno if pet stores were close or not, but regardless, like more people shopped online, basically. They, they didn't want to go. So sales wise was good in the beginning, but then probably have heard it two, it's like the supply chain problems started to hit where container prices went from $3,000 per container to up to 30,000 FedEx U P s increasing their, you know, shipping rates shipping delays. You know, we had, you know, several times we had containers stuck on sea for, you know, four to eight weeks without knowing when we get the inventory.

(22:50): Like it was just a very difficult year for us. And also like our margins got killed because especially if your ramp is like huge in volume, volume, right? Like, so only 1600 ramps fit in a huge container. So if the container price goes from three to 25, that's a huge, you know, huge dent in our margin. So, and then same year of course is updates happened is 14 first of many other annoying updates that also didn't help our, you know, marketing performance. So 2021 was definitely challenging for us. And in 2022 was really for us focusing more on bottom line profitability, staying lean, staying, you know, how can we you know, be more efficient as a company and not focusing on top line anymore. And well we're not saying not focusing, but, you know, bottom line of profitability became just such much more important for us. So yeah, now we are in a much healthier and better states than in 2021.

Sam (24:07): What does 2023 look like for Alpha Paul?

Ramon (24:12): 20? Sorry I didn't took this year. 2023? Yeah, okay, sorry. Yeah, I didn't hear. We so we launched two years ago and calculator brand called G Genius Litter. That we, even though we started, well probably 18 months ago, we launched that that's grown really, really fast. We launched in all pet smart stores earlier this year we're gonna launch in Canada. So yeah, that's very exciting. It's a very fast growing brand for us. And yeah, focusing on, on on that brand. And then for Alpha Paul, it's, it's really maintaining we, in the first couple years I've tried to launch all kinds of different products and what I've learned, like, I'm not saying it's not possible cause tons of other people and companies do it, but I think for us it's easier to focus on, you know, less products and going deeper versus, you know, 50 different type of products because, you know, again, it goes back to, sorry, there's my <laugh>, that's my dog. It's okay in the background. Sorry, sorry. I dunno what that is. But we, you know, because every time we launch a product, it needs creatives and these email you know, flows and it needs, you know, text message flows and all that stuff. And I've learned that for us it just works better. We have, you know, focus on less products.

Sam (25:59): Can you talk about what that means for you having fewer products but having more depth to them? Can you expand on that?

Ramon (26:06): Yeah, like because it's, it's, you know, it a little bit now looking backwards, common sense of like, okay, if you have a team of 10 people and they only have to, you know, work on, okay, how can we sell more ramps that's the only thing they have to focus on. Versus like, Hey, we have poop bags and we have pee pads and we have bats and we have blankets, and like, oh, and we also have ramps. Then, you know, it's just like less efficient. So we now that now that we go, we have less products we can be more efficient and, and really try to scale those products versus overall like so that's this year really because, you know, we don't know what's gonna happen. Macroeconomic, you know, inflation rates still issue now the dollar you know, nobody's know what's gonna happen with the dollar value and, and, and, you know, so it's still, it feels still, you know like how you say it like not super stable or like that we are, we've seen, you know, all the bad things.

(27:24): You know, so I think companies especially now in this time should focus really on trying to stay as lean and focused as possible and focus on things like, you know, that you own as well. Like emails, you know, Facebook ads. Now we've all know like an iOS update, it was not even Facebook's fault. And, you know, apple makes an update that affect every single advertiser, like, you know, and that could happen again or in a different capacity. So we are really focusing on, on, you know, channels that we quote unquote own. And I know with email you still are dealing with, you know, spam filters or ISPs or like, you know, all these type of things, but it's still you know, you have a little bit more control in my opinion.

Sam (28:18): Absolutely. Well, this has been a really fascinating conversation, Ramon. Where can our listeners go to learn more about Alpha Paul?

Ramon (28:28): Yeah we can, yeah, you check me out on alphapaw.com or Twitter. Also if you have any questions I try to be active as possible on Twitter and I have, you know but definitely I check out my dm, so feel free to reach out as well. Always happy to connect with all people.

Sam (28:51): Perfect. Well, we'll put all those things in the show notes. And Ramona, I wanna thank you again for taking the time to join us today and all the best in the future with football.

Ramon (29:00): Yeah, thank you. Thank you for having me.