The Beardbrand Way – An Interview with Eric Bandholz

We’ve been working with Beardbrand for about a year-and-a-half. During that time we’ve witnessed their explosive growth and national media attention as well as a cultural shift in how society views beards. It’s one of the most striking examples of the power of community I’ve seen in business. I sat down with Eric Bandholz to better understand how they engage with their audience, earn their trust, and operate their business—the Beardbrand way.

From the beginning, you’ve had an incredibly strong belief that Beardbrand would be successful. How were you able to stick to your guns, even when people told you it was a crazy idea?

Eric: I don’t know any other perspective but mine as an individual. I figured what I’d gone through was likely experienced by other men out there. I knew I wasn’t alone. I knew there had to be a large community of men out there who wanted to grow a beard or didn’t like shaving.

How can I help make that experience better? It really wasn’t thought of from a business standpoint first. It was thought of from my individual standpoint first, followed by connecting with professionals who want to grow facial hair. I wouldn’t necessarily say I was solving a problem, but rather looking into the root reasons for uniting our audience.

You often mention bearded persecution in the workplace. Was that something that was present in the early days of Beardbrand?

Eric: Yeah. Before Beardbrand even existed I wrote a couple of guest articles on Business Insider in 2011 where I talked about bringing the beard back to the corporate environment and what a person has to deal with when they grow out their facial hair.

The culture has changed in the past few years (at least from my perspective) to be much more accepting of beards. Do you think that’s the case?

Eric: Yeah. Society is definitely shifting to become more tolerant of facial hair. I’d like to say we’ve had a part in helping with that transition, but we’re definitely not exclusively responsible for that. We have inspired a lot of guys to grow beards, though. I can confirm that. I don’t even know the number of emails and letters I’ve received from guys over the past three years who have been thankful for our words, our help, and our products.


One of the many letters of support Beardbrand has received over the past three years

You understand your audience very well. Does that come naturally or is it something that has improved over time? What’s your secret?

Eric: I think I have a good foundation in that I’m passionate about our products and the industry. We do our homework to make sure that we formulate the best products. From there I think it’s about engaging with our audience.

For example, I’ve read every single comment on my YouTube channel that’s been posted to any of my videos. On Reddit I’ve read every single comment and response to any posts that I’ve had. It’s not specifically going out there looking for feedback. It’s just simply being involved and immersed within the community.

I’ve gone to over a dozen beard competitions around the nation and talked with with a bunch of bearded guys. When you’re connected—when you’re in it—it’s not work. You learn by doing.

Most organizations have a hard time publishing content consistently. But between Beardbrand, Urban Beardsman, YouTube, and Reddit, you’re a prolific publisher of content. How do you do it?

Eric: For me it comes down to expressing my emotions as they come to me, usually related to some kind of talking point of the day. Like today, I was talking about an article referencing the supposedly high concentration of poop in beards. It was important to come out quickly to say that’s a crock of shit. Our article [rebutting the poop in beards theory] was posted yesterday and has already received 400 shares on Facebook, which is a good response for us. With YouTube, it’s mostly listening to the community and providing what they want to know.

From a tactical standpoint, we’ve brought on an editor. That’s helped with both the day-to-day side of things and our long-term strategy in both the type of content we create and the platforms used for distribution.

How is your communication on Reddit different?

Eric: I don’t use Reddit as a way to drive sales at all. I use Reddit to share cool content that we’ve created and to connect with the community. The moment you use Reddit to drive revenue you’ll find the complete opposite result. It’s about being authentic and sharing your passion.

How do you adapt to the quickly evolving social media landscape?

Eric: The platforms have ebbed and flowed for us over time as we’ve grown. Facebook was really good for us in the beginning. Then it became irrelevant for a long time. But lately it’s picked back up. To me it’s being able to react to the trends, measure results, and adapt quickly to get the most impact from your message.

In the year-and-a-half we’ve been working with you, we’ve received very little pushback to our recommendations (perhaps more than any other client). Is that part of a strategy or are you trustworthy by nature?

Eric: Our company is built on trust as one of our pillars. So, we work with vendors that we trust. There is no point in paying a vendor to do something if we thought we could do a better job in-house. If a vendor says we should do something, then we do it. If we think a recommendation is not appropriate, we’ll take the time to help educate them on why it won’t work for us.

We trust the people we work with. We also know that there’s a lot to be lost in moving slow. So I’d rather occasionally get things wrong and move quickly to fix them than move slowly and miss an opportunity.

You’ve put the brakes on us before when we’ve recommended online conversion tactics we’ve seen work well for other clients. Is that (not being too salesy) an important part of establishing trust with your audience?

Eric: Yeah. I mean, it’s a tough line. Ultimately we are a business and want to use our growth to spread the message and change the way society views urban beardsman.

In your opinion, are there online sales tactics that break that trust?

Eric: From my perspective as an online consumer (and as Beardbrand’s #1 avatar), I don’t like pop-ups when I go to a website. It tells me something. It tells me they’re desperate, lack confidence, and are willing to needle and beg me to make a purchase. I’d rather buy from companies who are confident in their products and don’t need to beg.

That’s the strategy we’ve had from the beginning. It’s tough, though. I want to make sure we’re dong the best, but it’s a long-term play. We plan on being in this business for a very long time. We don’t plan on doing this for a couple of years, make a quick buck, and ride around on yachts all day.

How important is customer service in maintaining that trust?

Eric: That’s really important to us. We know that anyone can go to and get something that’s going to be cheaper than our products. Where they can’t beat us is our ability to educate the audience, help them beyond the product purchase, and really provide a first-rate customer service experience. We’re always working to improve and I think we’re getting better all the time. Everyday we get photos from guys that are growing their beards to let us know about their journey. For us, customer service isn’t just about making sure the product gets there on time. It’s about getting to know our customers better, too.

The Beardbrand team sitting together not thinking about riding around in yachts all day

The Beardbrand team is not interested riding around in yachts all day

Beardbrand has been featured in the New York Times, Men’s Journal, Fast Company, Inc., Forbes, and many others. How have you gotten so many bucket-list PR opportunities in such a short period of time?

Eric: We definitely invest in PR. We work with a firm called Pistol PR that has helped with a lot of those connections. But it also goes back to my personal style of trying to build relationships and never burn bridges.

For instance, the Fast Company article started when I did an interview with an intern at the Wall Street Journal for a little project I was working on called Bingle back in 2009. I maintained that relationship over the years. I was able to connect with Rob Brunner when my contact took a job at Fast Company because of that relationship.

There are stories like that where, as you get older, and grow your network, opportunities present themselves. Like I said, we invest a lot in PR. Some months you get a lot of articles, some months you don’t. But it’s part of a systematic process for us. It’s another example of a long-term play.

Of course we can’t have a Beardbrand interview without at least one Shark Tank question. Your “Ultimate Shark Tank Guide” on Reddit is, well, the ultimate guide to Shark Tank. Can you summarize why you went through the time-consuming process to appear on the show?

Eric: Shark Tank, for us, wasn’t necessarily a solution to take us to the next level. We were going to get there, with or without Shark Tank. But the risk was that another competitor was going to get on Shark Tank first and get that national exposure and awareness.

We obviously knew it was a great opportunity to share what we were building in front of millions of people as well as gain access to very successful, talented and knowledgeable investors. It was a really good opportunity from that standpoint. But we never wanted to ride on the coattails of Shark Tank and have that be the reason for our success. We wanted it to be one of the things that helped us get there.

Anything you’d like to add in closing?

Eric: I think the thing that I’d like to point out is that this isn’t an easy flash-in-the-pan kind of thing. It’s been very purposeful and meticulous work with a lot of time and resources behind it to get where we are today. It’s absolutely been a journey of labor and of love. I’d also like to say that success comes from simply being a member of your community. Imagine going to a bakery and getting to know your local baker. Think of the special items your local baker will create for you over the years and the feeling that relationship creates. We want to do that on a national level with our customers and our products. That’s our goal: to be part of a community and connect with them as best we can on a personal level.

Hyperlocal Blogging: Q&A with Matt McGee

One of the sessions at Searchfest 2009 that really piqued my interest was the Hyperlocal Blogging presentation from Matt McGee. He was kind enough to answer a few follow-up questions. In addition to publishing four hyperlocal blogs with his wife Cari, Matt is an experienced SEO, hyperlocal blogger, and Assignment Editor to Search Engine Land. With that, let’s move on to the questions:

Matt, so what the heck is hyperlocal blogging, anyway?

Hyperlocal blogging is writing about the streets where you live. It’s blogging about local news, local events, local businesses — anything that’s happening in your hometown, city, street, or neighborhood. Hyperlocal blogs often talk about things that traditional media ignores, the stuff that’s too small or not important enough to a wide range of people.

It was apparent from the analytics you provided that hyperlocal blogging has increased your traffic. Has that translated to increased business?

We think it has, but we’ve been very cautious about using the local blogs as marketing tools, so it’s hard to say for certain. We’re taking a very long-term approach. Our primary goal has been to create four blogs that both users and search engines trust, so we’ve not done much selling of real estate services. Only in the last couple months have we added a content box on every blog post that says, “If you’re looking for real estate help, contact Cari….”

ROI seems to be the toughest thing to measure when it comes to blogging. Have you had success in identifying metrics (increased emails, phone calls, links, media mentions, etc.) that have improved since you started hyperlocal blogging?

Cari has had a steady stream of contacts since the blogs launched last year, with only the normal holiday break in November-December. So, while a lot of real estate agents have seen slowdowns, we’ve been blessed so far to avoid that. But getting precise data about which blog is producing leads has been tough. When Cari asks how someone found her, the most common answer is “You’re all over the Internet!” If they say they found her blog, she’ll ask which one … but most folks don’t seem to remember, and they don’t realize that we have different blogs.

When I go “off topic” in my blog posts, the bounce rate skyrockets. How does your bounce rate compare to a more focused discussion of, say, a real estate agent blogging about real estate information. And if it is higher, do you care or does the increase in traffic more than make up for it?

I don’t pay any attention to bounce rate because, really, we never go off-topic on the local blogs. Anything and everything happening in the community is on-topic, so as long as we don’t start writing about a Pasco event on our Richland blog, we’re fine. The focus (still) is to build a readership, to introduce people to the idea that local blogs exist, to get them in the habit of visiting, and so forth.

But I’ll add this: Our most popular blog post ever was a very recent one about Kanye West appearing on BET-TV wearing a letterman jacket from one of our local high schools. No one has a clue how he got the jacket, why he wore it, etc. That post has had 2-3 weeks of record-setting visits and more comments than any post we’ve written, but we know that most of it is from high school students. So that may seem like a loss. On the other hand, that post is giving Google all kinds of positive click-through data about our blog, it was mentioned in the local newspaper, and even got a link from the paper’s web site — and our paper is very stingy about linking out. So there are other benefits at play here.

It seems like hyperlocal blogging would best benefit businesses that serve a pretty broad spectrum of local consumer needs. Real estate definitely qualifies. Restaurants seem like another industry that could benefit. Are there business profiles/industries particularly well suited for hyperlocal blogging?

I think it’s more about the individual and the approach than the industry you’re in. We all care about where we live, and if you remember that you’re writing a local blog — as opposed to a real estate blog, a restaurant blog, a plumbing blog, etc. — you can make it work. There’s no reason a plumber couldn’t write about (and take photos of) the things s/he sees while out and about every day — new businesses being built, school and community events, road closures, and stuff like that. And then you mix in the occasional plumbing content and you’re doing well.

In closing, what do you see as the main benefits of hyperlocal blogging?

I can only answer this based on our soft-sell, low-marketing approach.

1) It allows you to capture a lot of long-tail, local search traffic … which
2) Increases your visibility/branding in the community … and
3) Can lead to new sales/leads/clients.
4) It’s good — or great, if done right — for SEO.
5) It gives you valuable community knowledge while giving back a valuable community resource.

Matt, thank you very much for your time!

Search Rankings are Dead!

Two interviews caught my attention recently regarding the future of search. Here’s a quick summary of them for you. I believe what they discuss will have a pretty significant impact on SEO in the future.

So what’s all the buzz about, anyway?

It came from two interviews by Mike McDonald of WebPro News at Pubcon with Matt Cutts (of Google) and SEO Pioneer Bruce Clay. Here are the interviews in their entirety and my summary.

The death of search engine rankings (Bruce Clay)
The personalization of search (Matt Cutts of Google)

What, search rankings are dead? Well no, they aren’t dead. They’re just evolving-dramatically. Bruce Clay talked with Mike McDonald of WebPro News about Google’s efforts to personalize search results. Here are a few of his main points/opinions:

1) Google will personalize your searches in the near future. That is, your past searches (whether logged in to Google or not) will effectively bias your search results based on your search history. He used an example of a search for “java.” Your past search history could determine whether your search yielded results about coffee, programming, or travel. Chris Crum wrote a good recap of Bruce’s personalization comments here.

2) Intent based search is here. Search engines will determine intent and bias results towards that perceived intent. For example, reviews or general information queries will likely lead to global search results while a shopping or perceived local search (even without the local qualifier) will lead to geo-local search results.

3) Ranking is dead. According the Bruce, “The day of how high do I rank as a measure of doing SEO right is gone. You’re going to have to look at analytics… You’re going to have to measure traffic… You’re going to have to measure bounce rates… You’re going to have to measure action… Did I get the conversion I was after? Did I really deliver on the promise of SEO?”

4) Universal Search will be HUGE in 2009. Universal (also called Blended Search) was launched in early 2008. I have seen a massive increase in organic search traffic for my clients based on optimizing for Universal/Organic search. Bruce believes that web sites without video, images, and other variables of Universal search will be essentially left in the dust.

I love the point/counterpoint of Matt Cutts (from Google) being interviewed right after a top SEO like Bruce. I can’t help but say “Jane, you ignorant slut!” However, in this case, they more or less agree with each other, which lends even more weight to their comments. Here’s my summary from the Matt Cutts interview regarding Google’s future:

1) Is ranking really dead? Matt addressed this directly by saying,“Well, I’m not sure whether I’d say that ranking is dead. But it’s not as important as it used to be. But the fact is, the smart SEO’s are not necessarily just looking at the rankings. They’re looking at their conversions… and server logs. They are saying, sure, it’s great if I rank for a phrase, but unless that leads to sales it doesn’t help very much.”

2) If rankings are less important, what’s an SEO to do? Again, he addressed the the changing landscape directly by saying: “SEOs are starting to embrace the fact that they are marketers. It’s a broader spectrum. You have to think about how you build buzz, how do you get loyal customers, how do you optimize your ROI. All those different things and that can include how do I make good videos, do I have a book, things like that.”

3) But what about personalization? This is where it will be pretty interesting moving forward. His localization example makes perfect sense. But the personalization aspect seems a bit vague. “As you see more personalization… as you see more localization.. it changes. For example, If you do a search for the word “bank” in the United States, you’ll get Bank of America and other American banks. If you do that search in England, you’ll get Thomas Cook and different banks entirely. The challenge is not to pay so much attention to rankings and to pay attention to your traffic,… pay attention to your conversions,… keep building good content,… and then not worry so much about can I show people that I rank #1 for my trophy phrase.

4) Universal Search is really useful to users. Without telling us that we need to have videos, blogs, and other Universal Search content on our web sites to stay relevant and rank well, he certainly talked about how users are embracing video and blogs as well as how important creating quality content is to Google.
Read: Videos and blogs are mas importante! Get on this train if you haven’t already.

My next post will delve a bit deeper into these topics and include some real world examples of how Universal Search strategies have helped my clients. It will also include my thoughts of how businesses can work to capitalize on the personalization of search in the future.