Distribution: Getting Your Product and its Story to Customers


Lately, we have been thinking a lot about distribution for independent product companies who want to sell primarily online. Our assumption is that they have not yet been able to drive significant traffic to their website through organic search results. The goal here is twofold: (1) to tell your story to the right audience; and (2) to put your product in front of customers who are ready to buy. We have been developing a long list, some of which includes traditional, straightforward approaches that everybody has heard of, and some of which might be a little more esoteric. This is that list. If you have something to add to it, we welcome you to leave a comment below.

Large Online Retailers

They typically take a percentage of each sale, but you reach hundreds of millions of shoppers who are towards the bottom of the marketing funnel and, thus, ready to buy.

  • Amazon.com
  • EBay
  • Etsy — (handmade goods only
  • Craigslist — less of a retailer and more of a classified ads platform, but there are large numbers of products available in the “for sale” section

Upon receiving an order from one of these sites, use the shipment as an opportunity to learn more about the customer by enclosing a message sending them to your own site for their next purchase. A discount coupon that only applies on your site should do the trick.

Specialty Online Retailers

They don’t get nearly the traffic that the large retailers get, but they cater to a specific niche. Rather than listing out the thousands (millions?) of specialty retailers online, I will point out a few examples. To find retailers with good SEO for a particular niche, simply search on terms you would like to rank for and find out which retailers are on Page 1 of the Google SERP.

  • If selling organic clothing, look at Mountain Khakis, which performs strongly in Google search results for terms like “organic khakis”
  • If selling your own line of women’s swimwear, The Orchid Boutique has good SEO for terms like “designer swimwear”

Alternatively, other specialty retailers have a more horizontal focus; instead of appealing to a particular niche, they appeal to particular types of customers. For example, The Grommet sells new products (and, I’m told, charges high fees) to early-adopters through their website and email mailing list. Again, drive these customers to your own site for their next purchase by enclosing a discount coupon in the packaging.

Flash Sales

Gilt.com is an example of a site with a vertical focus (the fashion industry) which markets limited-time-only flash sales to its members. Zulily follows a similar strategy to market to moms with small children.

Moolala does not focus on one particular vertical, but markets various types product deals to customers who are then incentivized to refer that deal to their friends via social media. Often these deals are sometimes focused on the user’s geographic location, when appropriate.

1st-Party Email List

If you are able to drive traffic to your own site, collecting email addresses as leads and/or at checkout can be an effective tool. MailChimp provides good, free tools to enable you to do this up until the point when you outgrow it. All those pop-ups you see on the web asking for email addresses must be working.

3rd-Party Email Lists

Some marketing partners sell ad space on their enormous email lists. Some of these are pure advertising plays, where others are more like blogs in which the content is curated and the editors can be influenced. I have even seen Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns promoted this way. Some examples include:

…and hundreds more.

Trade Shows

There are tens of thousands of trade shows around the world every year. They represent a good opportunity to (1) set up a “pop-up” store and sell directly to customers; and (2) reach wholesale buyers. It works particularly well for products that sell better when they can be held and demonstrated. Even though you primarily sell online, it can be very instructive to get real-time feedback directly from customers. Just make sure you get a seller’s permit for state you are selling in.


Most startup founders I know love Shark Tank. Here’s a heartwarming clip about funding the Tree T Pee:

Of course, QVC and HSN can help you sell large volumes of product in just minutes. Other talk show hosts like Bethenny Frankel have regular features about helping entrepreneurs.

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

Depending on your niche and your backstory, getting on television may be a fast way to make a lot of fans.

Referral Marketing

Referral marketing incentivizes your customers to share your deals with their friends through social media. Criquet Shirts, a company that does so much right from a marketing standpoint, recently launched a referral marketing campaign supported by Extole. According to the deal, if I can convince three of my friends to use a 25% off coupon for a Criquet shirt, I will get a free shirt myself. (By the way, to get the deal, go to this link. They’re great shirts. Honestly!)

Criquet Extole Email

At minimum fees of $1,500/month, the Extole solution requires significant sales volume to justify its existence. I am guessing that Criquet believes my friends will have a higher LTV than customers acquired through other means due to the fact that they are my friends and we share similar tastes, which is why they will pay so much to acquire those customers. Other solution providers in the referral marketing space include Zuberance, Amplifinity, and SocialTwist.

Affiliate Marketing

Affiliate programs help give you a way to track the sales of your product that originate at third-party sites, such as blogs and online stores. Typically, these sites come across your product as they are looking for products that will sell to their niche. ShareASale.com appears to be the least expensive option for a startup ($650 to get started), while bigger affiliate networks like Commission Junction or Linkshare can run $500/month minimum just to register on their platform. As an example, PACT eco-friendly clothing uses ShareASale to pay affiliates a 7% commission.


We have written about blogger outreach in the past. Bloggers can do a terrific job of telling your story to the exact people you want to read about it. Some bloggers require payment, while others are satisfied with free samples in order to review your product. Another strategy to employ is compensate your bloggers through participation in your affiliate program. This has the added benefit of improving your product’s rankings within the affiliate program, increasing the likelihood that new affiliates will notice your product and begin to promote it on their sites.


Did you know that the search feature on YouTube makes it the world’s second largest search engine by search volume? If you do any videos, be sure to include links to your website, preferably to a specially-targeted landing page, in the YouTube description. They will show up as clickable links only if you use the full web address with the “http://” on the beginning.


Google AdWords is the obvious online advertising play. It is also subject to Google’s sometimes tight landing page guidelines and can get expensive for competitive keywords. Some alternatives include:

  • Niche online ad networks, like the Desk Network by Coudal Partners, which reaches creative, web, and design professionals
  • Fusion Ads
  • Carbon Ads
  • Advertise on Ebay or Amazon. On Amazon, for example, these sponsored links show up on search results and product pages

Amazon Sponsored Links

  • Facebook advertising can be highly targeted to reach just your niche
  • With Google, in addition to AdWords, think about using Google’s Remarketing–display ads directed at people who have already visited your site. This can include YouTube videos as well as static display ads
  • Depending on the niche you are trying to reach, a podcast could provide a relatively inexpensive sponsorship opportunity. You don’t even have to hire a voice-over artist or produce an ad–just have the host of the podcast read your copy on air

Product Subscription Services

In recent years, product subscription services–a.k.a. “discovery retailers”–have sprouted up as a viable business model. These services send monthly goods to subscribers who have signed up knowing that the goods are in a certain category. With over 400,000 subscribers, Birchbox is a leading product subscription service for beauty products, a place where many brands go to “get discovered” by a new audience. ManPacks sends men’s consumables like underwear, socks, razors, etc. to its subscribers. TrunkClub sends men’s clothes, acting as “your own personal stylist.” Plenty of other subscription services exist, serving other markets.


Traditional magazines and their associated web properties may present an opportunity for reaching customers. Lucky Magazine, for example, features guides to various categories of beauty and fashion goods on its website. The guides contain photos of the products and links to their respective websites. Look for the magazines in your niche that

DIY Public Relations

Help a Reporter Out sends three emails a day with reporters’ requests for quotes for a story. Subscribe to the HARO email list and set your inbox to alert you when those emails contain keywords related to your business.


We have blogged at length about various strategies and case studies related to Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns. We also described how to launch your own crowdfunding campaign if you can generate traffic to your site. Crowdfunding remains an excellent way to tell a compelling story, make presales, prove the market-worthiness of a product, and reach thousands of people.

Celebrity Testimonials/Sponsorship

Do you have any friends of friends of friends of a celebrity or a prominent figure in your market niche? True Linkswear, an innovative barefoot golf shoe company, garnered loads of free PR and credibility with golfers by partnering with Ryan Moore, a top PGA Tour player who did not have a shoe endorsement contract at the time. The right endorsement partner may be willing to forego a sponsorship fee in favor of an equity stake in the idea.

Promotional Products

Is your product a potential swag item for a trade show or corporate marketing event?  Can you produce it with enough margin to cut in distributors and still make a profit? Perhaps your business would benefit from registering to become an ASI distributor, thus gaining access to promotional products companies, corporate marketing departments, and marketing agencies that use that database to source promotional products.

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