Organic Ways to Grow Your Customer Base

How can you get people “into” your shop when you don’t have a physical store? It’s a question many Big Cartel customers share. It’s also a challenge that brick-and-mortar business owners faced during the pandemic. With folks largely staying home, they had to lean into virtual experiences to attract and retain customers. For the first part of our new marketing series for online sellers, we’ll explore some high-level lessons on brand awareness and customer loyalty from one such business that managed to survive, even thrive, without foot traffic.

How it started

Melinda Meservy is a practical dreamer who walked away from the corporate world five years ago to start Thyme and Place. She wanted to build community through the use of plants and relied almost entirely on in-person experiences to develop those bonds. “My goal was to create a physical space where people could get plants, get advice, and connect with each other,” she says. When Utah went into lockdown, she had to reimagine the communal aspect of her mission. If people couldn’t come to her, she would go to them—virtually. Which brings us to our first lesson:

Keep showing up

Even with a captive audience (people stuck inside; glued to their phones), Meservy had to work hard to keep Thyme and Place top of mind by simply announcing its presence over and over again. In the early days of the pandemic, she would hop on Instagram stories and walk through her shop saying, “The store is still here, I am still here, here is what’s available.” One of her most popular posts was her putting bags on the porch, announcing virtual hugs and contactless pickup.

Today, Meservy continues to make it as easy as possible for people to discover their next purchase. To showcase new inventory, she posts a video walk-through or series of images on both Instagram and her website (under “This Week’s Highlights”), along with sizing and pricing info to preemptively address common questions (“How big and how much?”).

What do your customers want to know? You can either anticipate their needs or straight-up ask on your preferred social platform how you can better serve them or send a quick email survey to better understand your existing clientele (keep it short and simple). Then show how you’re responding to those needs. Post your results on social channels and on your website. Check in again in six months. Make customer service a continuous, two-way dialogue.

Make customers feel special

Instagram is an obvious place to attract a following, but you don’t have to pay for clicks or pray for algorithms to come through to increase virtual traffic. Once again, customers are your best advocates.

Let them know you’re paying attention by sharing the love. When someone tags Thyme and Place in a post raving about their new plant buddy, Meservy almost always reposts with a friendly message and GIF. Then she adds the post to her Instagram highlights under a section called Forever Homes. “I think, whether you’re first starting out or not, people-if they like you-appreciate being reposted, it makes them feel kind of special,” she says. It’s also a good way to dip your toes into networking.

Meservy chalks up a lot of her success to luck but the truth is, she puts herself out there in a genuine way. If you’re thinking, ‘Well, good for her, but I’m an introvert,’ guess what? So is Meservy! “There have been so many times I didn’t want to post but you have to,” she says, adding that just doing the darn thing consistently pays off.

Reach out and plug in

Networking really is important, but if the term itself makes your skin crawl, let’s call it what it is-connecting with like-minded individuals and organizations who have mutual interests and goals. Ahhh. That’s better. Now, another way to “network” is to partner with other artists, makers, small business owners, and nonprofits. In the early days of Thyme and Place, Meservy hosted a live broadcast of a garden podcast called The Sodshow. She invited local plant experts, farmers, and nonprofit leaders to participate in the live panel. In doing so, she not only established a strong bond with community members but also generated meaningful awareness about her business. Word of mouth grew exponentially, and that positive buzz proved helpful when things went haywire during Covid.

You don’t need to host an event or go on a podcast to build relationships and raise your shop’s profile. Meservy also participates in the community by contributing items to other people’s events, like a nonprofit’s gala or a school’s silent auction. Most recently, for example, she donated a basket to a celebration of nurses and OB-GYNs. She did it because she wants to support these essential workers first and foremost. If someone sees the basket and wants to learn more, that’s an extra benefit to the charitable action.

Gallery strolls are another great place to get to know other business owners and to connect with people who want to buy local—which doesn’t mean only focusing on what’s geographically close.

“People who shop local will shop local online—and they’ll also shop small,” Meservy says. “By supporting other individual makers, no matter where they live, you create a genuine community.”


Article header image created by illustrator Yuko Okabe.

Jamie Gadette

Writer. Advertising and marketing strategist. Music obsessed. Comedy nerd. Proud mom of Winston.

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