Sean Ingram’s obsession with band merchandise began in his late teens while singing with renowned Kansas City mathcore band Coalesce.
“It was creative and fun, and that’s how we supported ourselves on the road,” he smiles from his office at Merchtable HQ, the Lawrence, Kansas-based merchandising company he co-founded with The Anniversary bassist Jim David in 2002.
Over the past two decades Merchtable has grown into one of America’s leading merchandising companies, representing more than 250 online stores for artists such as Flume, Lucy Dacus, JPEGMAFIA, Neurosis and Kurt Vile.
As their website states, “We are current and former touring musicians. After 20 years on the road, we’ve seen it all.”
Here, Ingram passes on some of those learnings, while looking at the most effective ways of marketing merch, why artists should pay attention to Etsy, how Merchtable upped their conversions, and much, much more…
How are you seeing the most successful artists and managers operate in terms of selling merch on tour and online?
On tour, the bands that go out and are prepared, and have their print company on standby, they're the ones that are going to make more money, because they're the ones that can pivot real quick.
Everyone goes out with a handful of pieces, but you don't know which one is going to do well, so you need to see what's moving and then pivot quickly. Pick the two or three that are moving, up those, and push the other ones to the side.
That’s always the name of the game: projections, projections, projections. Coming home without glut.
As far as online goes, it's always vinyl. Everyone wants vinyl. So that's the first thing.
The second thing is having your marketing down. And the number one thing for bands, obviously, it’s social media – that gets the word out immediately. That's what drives the initial traffic.
And then I would say the second thing would be email marketing. To a lot of people, it's not sexy, it's really boring. But it delivers – it absolutely delivers.
We have an older band that we do, and they don't do a lot of sales. We just have an expectation of what their numbers are. All of a sudden they did like 12 times [the amount of sales]. And we're like, what is going on? So I reached out and I go, ‘What are you doing?’ And he's like, ‘Oh, I'm emailing everybody every week. I'm just sharing stories from the road. And I'm like, “Oh, yeah, this stuff's on merch.”’ And I’m like, ‘It's working.’
Then there's social media marketing, which is ads. And those have been really hard since iOS 14. But we've been seeing some real breakthrough. We've worked with a couple of freelance folks who have helped us kind of crack that egg. And so, we've been able to get anywhere between an eight-to-13 times return on our spend, which is unheard of.
"We've been able to get anywhere between an eight-to-13 times return on our spend..."
What's changed there? How do you explain that return?
Before iOS 14, before all the privacy laws went into effect, it was awesome. From a marketing standpoint, you could put a little money into it and see exactly how much money you made back. It was great.
But when Apple moved to the privacy laws – which are good too – nobody knew what was going on. It was a big mess. Everybody's been trying to figure out how to work with it. So, Facebook's made some good strides on how to do that, they're getting ready their Cookie system, they're doing the CAPI, the conversion API, which is awesome. And that's been interesting to see.
And they've been real proactive about having people on the Facebook team saying, ‘Hey, here's what we're seeing work, try this.’ A lookalike audience of 1% used to be the go-to, now they're saying do a lookalike audience of 4%. We saw that work; we saw our ads have a greater reach.
Can you explain that in a little more detail?
So, at 1%, basically your lookalike audience is going to look exactly like the audience that you're using – an audience would be comprised of, say, people who visited your site, somebody who bought something on your site. So it's kind of just looking at itself, it's not really a lookalike audience.
[It used to be] the tighter you got it, you got people that looked more like your audience. But really what started happening is it was just looking at itself.
So when you do it at 4%, that gets you people who act like your audience that you’re using, and maybe are buying similar artists and stuff. And that started increasing our conversions. Big time.
Of all the social media channels, do you find that one tends to lead to more conversions?
Our folks do use Twitter, but I don't know if they use it much more than like, ‘This is out, this is here’, like a message board or announcement thing. I feel like our clients are more engaged with the Meta products, Instagram and Facebook. TikTok we’ve kind of messed with, but I am not seeing that our audience is there.
We're moving into YouTube, because we're seeing that's what a lot of people are doing. We're almost there, but it's been really difficult to get synced with YouTube.
But we also do Bandcamp, which is amazing. We're one of the few people that are directly integrated with Bandcamp, and that one's interesting, because what we learned there is that some customers, some fans, just love Bandcamp. They don't want to go to Amazon, they don't want to go to eBay, they don't want to go to the band's [site], they want to go to Bandcamp. And even if something's a little bit more, because you have that margin so Bandcamp gets their cut, they don't care, they'll pay $1.20 more.
I think Bandcamp is the only platform where people are like, ‘We love Bandcamp.’ Nobody's saying, ‘I love Twitter, I love Instagram.’
"We tell bands that we want them to be on Etsy."
Are there any innovative things you're seeing people do in the merch space?
It really does come down to the basics. You know, people want color vinyl, they want records that maybe have been out of press for awhile, or new ones. And they want physical media. And that's really what we're seeing.
There were years where it was all about the weird thing. We did a foil trading card set, we did a 3D bust. We did a 3D wax candle, we were doing really gnarly stuff, completely custom. But what we're seeing is people are pulling it back to a real tight, tasteful line of the basics: quality screenprints, not print on demand.
One interesting sales channel that Merchtable works with, or works through, is Etsy. We tell bands that we want them to be on Etsy. There are always bootleg places out there, [but] the reason we like Etsy is because we find that the fan on Etsy tends to [make] a higher quality product, and it seems to have more thought [put] into it.
We work with this one EDM client from Canada, and they didn't have any idea of what to do, they only wanted to print on certain things that the artist liked to wear. And we would always make the argument: ‘Hold on a second, is your artist going to wear all 5000 of these T-shirts? Because we really need to think of their fanbase.’
And so what we started noticing is that their fans were on Etsy and had their own accounts, and were making incredible jewellery, and stuff that the client just never even thought of.
So we started using Etsy as our inspiration board. And we're like, why don't we hire this fan? ‘Hey, can you make 500 of these?’ And then we connected it. And that was a pretty interesting experiment. We still continue to do that with some clients. You know what the fans want? And what is trending? On Etsy, they will tell you. Because these are things that bands aren't making.
I think Etsy is one of the most brilliant places to go and get a read on the pulse.
Have you noticed anyone doing something innovative in the merch selling space?
I did see something that was super rad. I think it was Happy Belly Vending, which is a company out here in America that’s really rad to work with.
One of the things that I saw they had was a big QR code [at a gig], and before the headlining act went on, the stage had a QR code. It said, ‘Buy merch now with this code, and it will be ready to be picked up on the way out of the venue.’ And so, the fans were just adding their things and putting in their name. And then when the show was over, they got in single file, gave their number and it was already pre-picked. It was kind of like a merch company on site. It was really clever.
"If your products are in every sales channel where the customers are, that's really driving all your sales."
Have there been any innovations or integrations that have really worked for you in leading to better conversions?
So for us, Klaviyo was gigantic. We use Klaviyo to handle all our automated marketing. And it's amazing. Once you know what you want to do and how you want to communicate with your customers, you set it and forget it. So that's been really good, especially with abandoned carts.
We use it for a pop-up for the sign-up for the email list. And then any time new items launch on the store it automatically emails the people who want to know. I don't have to go and create an email and come up with language that maybe isn't in the customer's voice, it's just all pre-approved ahead of time. Any time you can automate the marketing, that's been really huge for us.
And then the other thing would be focusing on different sales channels. Spotify opening up to Shopify was huge. Anyone who has a Shopify store can automatically get their items into their Spotify store, and Merchtable is integrated with Shopify. That’s been huge.
So, it really is the sales channels. If your products are in every sales channel where the customers are – that's YouTube, Spotify, Bandcamp and all that – that's really driving all your sales. You don't have to do social ads, you don't have to do social posts. It's just there already. So really focusing on sales channels, that makes sense for our clients.
"Anything that you can create that makes that a fun space increases conversions."
Do you find the way that merch is displayed at a venue leads to higher conversions?
Absolutely. I was talking to one of the managers of Charlie XCX and he's like, ‘You’ve got to meet this merch person.’ And he sent me his resume, and it was fantastic. He found this place that makes really inexpensive neon signs… He has the grids and all that other stuff, but he incorporates a lot of lighting and his own flair. And it was so attractive.
I was like, ‘I bet your conversions are a lot higher.’ He's like, ‘Yep, it's this percentage higher when I'm allowed to have electricity and do this, versus if I just have a dark corner with a light.’ If you make it inviting, people want to go.
He shared this other thing with me that was really clever. He said, ‘You need the artist back there meeting and greeting at the merch table. Even if they refuse or they're introverted, or it's hard for them to do that, [make a] cardboard cut-out [that people can] take a picture with.’ He's like, ‘Anything that you can create that makes that a fun space increases conversions.’
So where do you think merch is heading in 2023? Are there any trends we're going to see develop?
As far as how merch companies are approaching it, applying a lot more intelligence to it. There’s this company called atVenu. They're basically tour merch software that helps you keep track of your inventory. And they have this thing called MerchIQ. It's basically a really clever way to forecast how much merch you need.
We are always trying to get bands to use that, and I'm talking to more merch companies that are successful and are like, ‘We won't work with you unless you use atVenu.’ And I think that's a good trend. Because Google Sheets are great, but that's not how you should run it.
So, I'm seeing trends more towards intelligence like that. Because merch companies don't want pallets of merchandise back. We have nowhere to store it, it costs us money. It's wasted overhead for the customer.
The merchandise really has stayed pretty traditional. From what I've been seeing, hoodies, T-shirts, two to three color prints, maybe not all-over prints and crazy colors and 18 in the lineup, tight lineups. That's what we're seeing.