June 6, 2013, 3:09 PM

Want to sell via Facebook? Consider pet pictures.

PetFlow.com uses cute images to gain customers via social media.

Lead Photo

Alex Zhardanovsky speaking today at IRCE 2013.

When it comes to posting content on the Internet that speaks to people and drives sharing, humor and cuteness works. Or so said PetFlow.com founder Alex Zhardanovsky today during his featured address at the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition 2013 in Chicago entitled “How social marketing became the rocket fuel for a small start-up.”

Take one of the e-retailer’s more popular Facebook posts, for instance. It included a photo of a pug’s face in front of a hot grill full of charred hot dogs. The caption read, “Would you like yours licked or not licked? Just kidding, they’re all licked.”

Another post featured two images of a kitten wrapped in a blanket. The first caption read, “Aah finally in bed.” The next said, “I have to pee.” That post generated 19,000 Likes and was shared by Facebook users 11,000 times. It drove sales and traffic on PetFlow.com, too, as more than 4,000 consumers clicked on an ad that was included in the Facebook post for a sale on PetFlow.com.

The viral scale of sharing, commenting and clicking on Facebook content is a common occurrence for PetFlow. In fact, the marketing tactic stands behind merchant’s astounding growth over the last three years, Zhardanovsky said. He expects PetFlow.com to bring in $65 million this year, up from $30 million in 2012.

Zhardanovsky walked conference attendees through the process PetFLow.com took to build a network of followers on Facebook, engage them with content and convert those fans into buyers.

Merchants face the challenge of getting Facebook fans interested in their products. From an exit survey on its e-commerce site, PetFlow learned that 85% of its customers were females 40 or older. So when it made an investment in Facebook display ads to boost its number of Likes, it used Facebook’s tools to target the ads to women over 40.

He also wanted to appeal to consumers he knew were already comfortable shopping online, so he targeted the ads to Facebook users that  also were fans of Amazon.com Inc. Simple ads like an image of a cute kitten with the words, “Click LIKE if you love your cat,” increased the merchant’s Facebook fan base from 10,000 to 200,000. Similar campaigns have increased that number to around 850,000 today.

Zhardanovsky also told attendees to post content their fan bases will enjoy. This is where the puppies and babies come into play—a strategy that has worked well for PetFlow.

The merchant posts often, too—nearly 20 times a day—in an effort to stay top of mind among consumers, Zhardanovsky says. Nearly all posts include a link back to PetFlow.com. Some links come with discount codes or sales announcements.

Once a consumer makes it from Facebook to PetFlow.com, the merchant can then install a cookie on the consumer’s browser and market to her via retargeted ads. If the consumer makes a purchase and shares his e-mail address, PetFlow can market to that shopper not only on Facebook, but also via e-mail marketing.

Given that its Facebook content has proved popular among consumers, the merchant includes a link to its Facebook page in nearly every place possible—on product pages, in all outgoing e-mails and in packaging inserts—in hopes that consumers’ affinity toward the company on Facebook leads to a long-term sales relationship.

PetFlow.com is No. 1 in the Internet Retailer Social Media 300—a ranking of the leaders in social commerce—and No. 406 in the Top 500 Guide.

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