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Three summers ago, Acumen Brands, the online retailer’s parent company, doubled down on plans to make Country Outfitter the internet destination for cowboy boots and all things Western wear. Intending to bring industry to Fayetteville, Arkansas, Acumen recruited talent with the enticing carrot that it might transform the city that less than 80,000 people call home into the Silicon Valley of the South.
At that moment, the company didn’t have much to boast about, save for a troubling surplus of inventory. Country Outfitter, Acumen's flagship brand, was a boot company that could hardly move a boot. "To be honest, Country Outfitter was failing," says Josh Clemence, who was a brand manager at Acumen in 2012. "We had a lot of product that we could essentially give away."
So they did: They gave away at least one pair of boots a week for more than a year via an audacious, unproven, and arguably infuriating takeover of countless targeted Facebook feeds. Within four months of its initial giveaway push, Country Outfitter amassed 7 million Facebook fans.
The brand was loved. The brand was reviled. The brand was relevant. But now, after a few years of staggering success, it appears 7 million Facebook fans—now down to 6.6 million on its main page—aren’t enough to keep a small-town startup afloat.
This is the story of how Country Outfitter seized the internet’s attention, and how it intends to keep it.
Owning the country market wasn’t Acumen founder, and now ex-CEO, John James’s initial grand vision. The company only began designing its own line of boots last year. In the beginning, Acumen sold scrubs.
"The original plan was to build 25 online stores selling 1000 brands," says Rich Morris, Acumen’s VP of strategic partnerships and vendor relations, who has been with the company since its founding in 2009. Those stores, Acumen’s team first envisioned, would emphasize function over form, catering to workplace-specific demands.
James’s credentials as a physician (the ambitious entrepreneur left medicine after completing his residency) inspired the first store, a medical scrub business. That led the startup to sell nursing shoes made by Timberland, then Timberland’s arsenal of work boots, then outdoor boots in general, then cowboy boots—footwear that, Morris admits, nobody at the company wore at the time.
Acumen knows country because it’s their business to know country. They know country because country keeps the lights on.
Wherever there was an underserved niche, James began to see opportunity for a new digital storefront. Acumen went after nurses and cooks, artists and moms, baseball fans and dancers. The company bore no singular identity.
But scale became an ever-growing roadblock. To be everything to everyone, the company needed a staff equipped to handle global sales. It had neither the money, the time, nor, in Northwest Arkansas, the bodies.
"I think at our height, we had between 11 and 15 different stores," says Clemence, who was among Acumen’s first dozen hires. "If you have 11 different niches, then you have 1,100 different types of consumers, and that becomes very difficult, especially at a startup. That begun to take its toll on us." Spread thin, the small team began closing down the stores "that we weren’t able to become the best at," says Clemence.
All Around Dance. Hectic Gourmet. The Mom. The Baby Habit. Ruby Canvas. Fat Chance. Top Slugger. Scrubsy. Acumen ditched them all, in addition to dissolving partnerships with Capezio and Gannett Healthcare, in an effort to streamline.
What was left—what Acumen believed it could leverage best—was country. Enough of its verticals were country-adjacent that it seemed like a natural consolidation.
"We know country," Country Outfitter’s tag line, rings true not because the company is owned and operated by cowboys and cowgirls who ride to work in pickup trucks. Acumen knows country because it’s their business to know country. They’ve made it their business to know country. They know country because country keeps the lights on.
Dustin Williams sat on the team that came up with that catchy slogan. "I was like, ‘Oh my God, I actually like that,’" laughs the former director of user experience. "Because when you think about it, we were selling nothing but boots at the time, and a little bit of clothing. How do you take a company that’s just selling boots and grow it into other pieces of that industry? Sell everything that’s country."
Country Outfitter sells leather. Country Outfitter sells fringe. Country Outfitter sells cutouts and embroidery and studs. Country Outfitter sells cowboy boots from companies like Lucchese, Ariat, Frye, and Corral, brands invested in showstopper shoes. Stub-toed, square-toed, steel-toed. Country Outfitter sells home goods, accessories, and apparel that capitalize on recognizable iconography of country living, like the American flag, guns, and Johnny Cash.
It quickly became important to not isolate Country Outfitter in its genre specificity, but rather to stretch the meaning of the name without shredding its value. The hope was that "the country look" and "the country life" could appeal to anyone. You didn’t need to live in the South to listen to country darling-turned-mainstream pop star Taylor Swift. You didn’t need to grow up on a farm to dream up a barnyard-chic, Pinterest-worthy wedding.
The hope was that "the country look" and "the country life" could appeal to anyone.
Presentation was the trick. As Acumen grew in that summer of 2012 from a multi-vertical e-commerce business to a singularly-focused retailer, the company invested time and money into stylized photo shoots, taking care to present its products not as purely functional, but as fashionable too.
"We were able to style things differently than, say, a gal wearing a pair of jeans on a horse," says Morris.
The company also realized the country niche had another perk: timelessness.
"We thought Western was a category that made sense because of, really, the model," Morris continues. "In fashion, there’s new product every year, there’s new product every season. But Western brands keep all the products from previous seasons and continue to roll those out. That’s a much easier inventory model than when seasonal products roll in and are no longer good at the end of that season, so you’ve got to buy new. You don’t get into dead inventory positions and have a lot of excess and obsolete inventory. For a startup company, that made a lot of sense."
But by Labor Day 2012, Country Outfitter’s warehouse held gobs of dead inventory. Old or new, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t sell.
"If you were on Facebook in 2012 and 2013, there was a nine out of ten chance that you saw a Country Outfitter ad," says Clemence, one of the key players behind Acumen’s early social media strategy. "Country Outfitter was Facebook."
Advertising was a piece of the Facebook experience from the earliest days of the social media monolith’s existence. Banner ads first surfaced on the site in 2004, the year Facebook launched. These ads appeared in the sidebar margins of profile pages. Ads appeared on the same screen as friends’ photos, status updates, and wall posts. You probably ignored most of those ads, until you caught on that the same ads appeared again and again and again. The brute force via blunt object approach.
In 2012, Facebook went public and began to feel pressure to monetize its platform. This meant more ad products and opportunities for companies like Country Outfitter. "Facebook didn’t have any barriers, or really any rules," continues Clemence, "so we could easily pay to be in front of as many people as we wanted."
Clemence adds that the algorithm that served ads at the time was aggressively viral. Acumen harnessed that reach capability, not only purchasing sidebar ads, but also paying Facebook to promote content published on Country Outfitter’s page on the News Feed of users whose friends liked or shared that content. That’s why it looked like Country Outfitter was all over your personal feed, even if you’d never visited Country Outfitter’s Facebook page before.
"It was a different day on Facebook than it is now," explains Stephanie McCratic, Acumen’s director of content and social media at the time. Overly-promotional posts had yet to be penalized. "Back then, you could buy Facebook ads so cheap," echoes Williams. "And then you could pay for likes that were extremely cheap."
Country Outfitter knew it wanted to corner a more non-traditional country enthusiast, but wasn't sure where exactly to find that unique flavor of customer. It guessed that this consumer pool existed not as one particular subset, but within several potentially overlapping groups, so it targeted ads at a smorgasbord of demos: big brand fans, high-fashion shoppers, mommy bloggers, trendy teens, and everyone in between.
"We had to get rid of the boots somehow anyways. People love free stuff."
"At any given time, we could have a hundred different types of ads going on Facebook," says Clemence. His team took painstaking efforts to "segment" Facebook, or break down users into different categories that could be approached in different ways with different language and imagery. "We were trying to quickly and cheaply see if any of these different markets would take the bait. And if they did, we’d hit the gas pedal and see how fast we could get as many different people as we could."
Country Outfitter began to gather likes and amass the foundation for a devoted fan base, but there was still that arsenal of dead inventory. So like a cowboy on the ranch, it took Facebook’s platform by the horns, letting those new fans move product for them.
"We said hey, let’s use this excess inventory as part of the marketing cost to gain customers as fast as possible," recalls Clemence. "We had to get rid of the boots somehow anyways, so we were either gonna sit on it" —or take a gamble. "People love free stuff."
The marketing schedule was meant to juice every post, like, and potential fan. It went like this:
On Monday, Country Outfitter would announce a new contest where Facebookers would like and share photos to vote for their favorite pair of boots from a choice of five.
On Tuesday, Country Outfitter would announce the top three choices. Facebookers were invited to like and share to vote again.
On Wednesday, Country Outfitter would announce the top two. Facebookers were invited to like and share to vote once again.
On Thursday, Country Outfitter would announce the winning pair of boots that would be given away. Facebookers were invited to like and share to actually enter the contest.
On Friday, Country Outfitter would announce the Facebooker who won the fan-chosen pair of boots.
On Monday, the whole play would be repeated.
While the company is unable to provide the exact number of free giveaways, Lela Davidson, who joined Acumen in 2013 as a publishing manager and transitioned into a new role as VP of media and entertainment this past January, says that from late 2012 through mid-2014, Country Outfitter gave away hundreds of pairs of boots.
Each step of the way, Country Outfitter’s page received more likes and more shares, all through what’s defined in digital marketing as "organic reach." Yes, organic. Country Outfitter’s giveaways were posted directly to its company page. These were not "Click for Free Boots" banner ads. You saw a Country Outfitter giveaway because you had already liked its page, or your friend liked its page, or a friend shared its posts. Country Outfitter paid for likes and shares to get the ball rolling, but after that initial investment, virality took over.
But here’s the real secret sauce: In order to sign up for a contest, you had to enter your email address. "A like is not worth anything to us other than being able to expand upon our reach," explains Clemence. "An email address is a thousand times more valuable because we can market to them again."
The more fans Country Outfitter accumulated, the more users wanted to join the crowd. Adds Williams, "That really helped, people from the outside looking in, saying, ‘Oh wow, they have a million likes.’ It bumps up your credibility. And during that time John [James] was spending quite a bit of money on that, but it was paying us back in spades. It was pretty crazy."
"That really helped, people from the outside looking in, saying, ‘Oh wow, they have a million likes.’ It bumps up your credibility."
Former Acumen CEO James declined participation in this story, as did current CEO Terry Turpin. However, James did tell press earlier this year, as reported by Northwest Arkansas-based online publication The City Wire, "We cracked the code on Facebook on Labor Day of 2012 and went from zero Facebook fans to 7 million in just four months time. The business went from $1 million in 2011 to $15 million in just one month by the end of 2012."
It was the perfect growth strategy. Country Outfitter collected scores of fans in record time, enjoyed word-of-mouth advertising, and perhaps even more importantly, got free market research. With customers sharing photos of their favorite boots and Acumen’s team tracking which brands and styles traveled across Facebook best, the company learned what to promote and what to purchase for additional inventory. Not only that, it also learned which demographics preferred which boots. It no longer had to shoot in the dark. It had fired indiscriminately into the internet’s deep, dark void until it hit the bullseye.
"You know what’s crazy?" laughs Clemence. "I’ve been to the Google offices, and every time I go and meet with people, they’re like, ‘Oh we’ve heard of you guys, we’ve heard of Country Outfitter, you gotta tell us all about this.’ And I just sit there and think, to this day the growth was amazing, but it’s just ordinary practice to me now."
It goes without saying that you can’t acquire 7 million fans without making some enemies.
"Take me the hell of your page!!!" reads one angry Facebook comment from January 2013.
"I am being bombarded with SPAM from Country Outfitters [sic] sweepstakes to like their page to win boots," reads a frustrated request for help from that same month on the page for Facecrooks, a self-proclaimed social media watchdog. "It appears on my news feed constantly. I keep reporting it as offensive and as SPAM to no avail. By the comments on the page, there are plenty of others who are being harassed constantly by this unwanted, unsolicited ad. What would be the next step?"
There are more. Many more.
"I have vowed to never shop through your link," reads yet another comment on a Facebook giveaway later in January. "Hate your ads on Facebook," the user clarifies four minutes after the initial posting.
Some things to consider: First of all, "love these boots" and "need these boots" comments abound too, in caps lock with exclamation points and more wide-mouthed smiley faces than a text message from your grandma. Secondly, Facebook is not always a breeding ground for positive or thoughtful discussion.
Complaining happens to be part and parcel of digital advertising, and in this brave new world, digital reputation and real-world reputation are very much tied together. Country Outfitter’s damaged rep follows it to this day, in the form of one-star Yelp reviews, for its—now closed—brick-and-mortar store, critiquing not the store itself, but frustration with aggressive Facebook tactics, poor online customer service, and defective product.
"We’d get messages like, ‘Why are you stalking me?’ It was people just not understanding how Facebook works."
Former Acumen employees agree that the giveaway strategy angered a huge cross-section of its fan base. Says Clemence, who left the company in December 2012, immediately after that insane quarter of skyrocketing popularity, "As many people as we attracted, we also annoyed."
Seconds McCratic, who left Acumen in August 2013, "A lot of Facebook users got really irritated with us because they thought that we were taking over their feeds. It wasn’t that we necessarily weren’t, we were just the first to really leverage the platform, so nobody else was fighting for those ad spots."
Those ad spots were won via a bid system, and with little competition over them, Country Outfitter was able to exploit the model to its furthest extent and be everywhere, all the time. "You’d see posts like, ‘I hate Country Outfitter, please get off my Facebook,'" McCratic continues. "We’d get messages like, ‘Why are you stalking me?’ It was people just not understanding how Facebook works. Somebody in customer service would reply and say, ‘Hey, just letting you know, so sorry it seems like we’re following you, I promise we’re not.’"
"Our story has been that we are a funny little high-tech company stuck here in the middle of Arkansas," says Davidson.
Surely you've spotted the paradox here: A funny little company doesn’t find itself with 7 million Facebook fans.
There's a tug of war at play when it comes to Country Outfitter’s identity. It wants to be seen as a folksy boot retailer in an Arkansas town, but it has leveraged the same tools as giant corporations, unafraid to harness tech innovations and new trends. Take the fact that its distribution warehouse uses Kiva, a state-of-the-art robotic fulfillment system bought out by Amazon last year; other companies using Kiva include Walgreens and Zappos. Acumen has 175 employees. Country Outfitter has those millions of Facebook fans.
But all of that pales alongside the company's latest plan.
"In my head, I’m going after BuzzFeed, I’m going after the big dogs," says Lauren Cowling, managing editor of Country Outfitter Style, the retailer’s lifestyle blog that launched in February 2014. The blog reports on country music superstars, country cooking recipes, and creative ways to use mason jars. Content turnaround is quick, with an average of 32 posts a day, ranging from 500-word entries to meme roundups to lists: "5 Reasons We Want to Be Martina McBride," "5 Country Music Songs We’re Still Waiting for Someone to Explain to Us," "5 Kacey Musgraves Inspired ‘Biscuits’ Recipes for the Summer." The site uses PlayBuzz for quick quizzes like, "Which Diva Country Music Star Are You?" and "What Country Music Star is Under the Cowboy Hat?"
"Has anybody told you yet that country’s not a zip code?" jokes Cowling. She’s referring to the motto that strings through County Outfitter's branding. This is a point that Acumen’s leadership emphasizes at every opportunity. "We believe that country is not a zip code; it’s a state of mind" is how the official copy reads.
"We embodied and embraced the country lifestyle theme because it’s about being rich in Americana, wide open spaces—it's aspirational, laid-back, a little bit slower-paced, rich in family," says Morris. He cites New York as Country Outfitter’s second-most popular state for sales, and Davidson insists that although Southern pride plays heavily into the company's messaging, it’s only a slice of the pie.
"There’s a hunger for this type of representation of a country lifestyle, for people who hold Middle American values to see their lifestyle celebrated and reflected back to them, and not in a cliched, hackneyed way. It’s not redneck, it’s not Branson, it’s not only riding horses, but it does include riding horses," he explains. "If you look at our sales map, it looks just like a population map of the United States. We literally sell in all areas of the United States. It’s not the South, it’s not rural areas, it’s not only the flyover states. We sell everywhere."
Natalie Harber-Romero has been a Facebook fan and customer of Country Outfitter for two years, and reads the blog nearly every day. "I click on almost all of the short articles on their Facebook page, and most are fun and a quick read," says the California transplant now living in South Carolina. The 29-year-old seems to be a good example of that "not a zip code" idea Acumen is so feverishly after. "I consider myself more of a Southern and country girl even though I grew up in California, though some of their stuff is a little too country for me. The country lifestyle for me means bonfires, country dirt roads, some alcohol, and spending time with friends and family."
"If Facebook’s now only showing posts to 2 percent of the people who like you, why spend a ton of money growing your Facebook presence?"
Country Outfitter’s continued play into the media space hinges on exclusives with country music stars, text-to-win contests at live events, and a YouTube channel that Cowling and her small editorial team are working to build out. Soon, Country Outfitter Style will be its own standalone site, living separately from CountryOutfitter.com. Davidson says that a separate URL for its media property will most likely launch in the fall, but that there’s no hard and fast date yet.
Acumen’s new media strategy follows a relatively recent about-face in regards to Facebook. The company has more or less exhausted the giveaway model, the cost-to-profit ratio for display ads stopped making sense once Facebook’s pricing increased, and, most notably, Facebook changed its algorithm since Country Outfitter's social media heyday.
"If you had 7 million people who liked your Facebook page when you posted, especially when you posted a photo, it was likely that a large percentage of people who liked your page were going to see that organic post," says McCratic of the platform, pre-algorithm change. "Now we know it’s closer to, across the board, 2 percent, if you can even get that. So if Facebook’s now only showing posts to 2 percent of the people who like you, why spend a ton of money growing your Facebook presence?"
Country Outfitter’s current Facebook stats are down substantially since the giveaway glory days. It no longer posts for marketing purposes—you won't see product photos or links—but rather to promote stories from Country Outfitter Style. Engagement on these posts is drastically lower; Country Outfitter is seeing well below 100 likes per post, compared with the tens of thousands giveaways attracted.
You can't blame it all on algorithm changes though; the company's social media methods are no longer cutting-edge. Facebook posts featuring celebrities don’t even tag those stars’ names, making each one a wasted opportunity for appearing on more News Feeds. It's clear the company hasn't learned to game Facebook in 2015, and it certainly hasn't learned to game Facebook as a media company in 2015.
But Acumen as a media company isn’t a backup plan. It is the plan.
Employees of Acumen past and present like to use the startup-friendly term "iteration-driven" to describe the company, but perhaps the more apropos way to put it is that every time Country Outfitter falls off the horse, it hops back on. It's always looking to dust itself off and try something new.
In 2014, the retailer introduced three boot brands that were designed and manufactured in-house for the first time: the feminine Eight Second Angel, the urban Independent Boot Company, and the classic American Rebel Boot Company. Williams, who left Acumen in May 2013 to co-found a higher-end country style brand, Bourbon and Boots, thinks it was a smart play: "I tell people that Country Outfitter can do boots from cow to boot. They have the cow, they have the factory that actually produces product, they can ship the product, and they can sell the product online. If you can own that whole supply chain, your growth margins go up exponentially."
"I tell people that Country Outfitter can do boots from cow to boot. If you can own that whole supply chain, your growth margins go up exponentially."
Those in-house brands team up frequently on special collections with country music stars like John Rich and Colt Ford. Star power sells. Likewise, Country Outfitter’s first digital shift away from Facebook giveaways involved working with bloggers and "influencers," including Ree Drummond, a.k.a. The Pioneer Woman, though those partnerships often just resulted in, you guessed it, different kinds of giveaways.
"We knew that we needed virtual wingmen and wingwomen out there telling our story on their social platform," explains McCratic. "For our own credibility and our own brand awareness and exposure, and also, you know, it didn’t hurt SEO either."
Now Country Outfitter’s has scaled back on influencer collaboration to focus more heavily on branded content on its media platform. And, of course, there’s the in-progress plan for retail expansion, a plan that appears to outsiders as if it were thwarted by the shuttering of its flagship—its only location—this past May. The company, however, maintains that the two-year lifespan of the brick-and-mortar storefront inside downtown Fayetteville’s Old Post Office was a learning experience and an opportunity to give life to a neglected historical building.
"Part of the challenge is we want to create something we can replicate en masse," says Davidson, adding that the building’s woodwork, brickwork, and natural light created a great environment for photo shoots, but is hardly a practical model to reproduce elsewhere.
Morris says that Acumen will begin rolling out new retail plans by this coming winter: "We understand the e-commerce space probably better than most. Brick and mortar is not one of our core competencies, I’ll just be real honest. We’d love to be able to sell and leverage from a supplier’s standpoint, but also by learning from other brick and mortars across the country. There’s more to come on that. We absolutely know that’s an opportunity for us to continue to grow, through driving people from online to offline and offline to online."
The Old Post Office location remains in the family, so to speak: It’s now the home base for former Acumen CEO John James’s newest startup, Hayseed Ventures, which calls itself "a venture capital production studio," according to Blake Puryear, Hayseed's technology and project management lead and an alum of Acumen. In fact, many of the former Acumen employees interviewed for this piece are in some way still professionally linked to James.
James is one of the advisors for McCratic’s influence company, Acorn, and Williams says that he and James are discussing investing in a new company together. McCratic and Williams were both recruited aggressively by James when he was at Acumen, as was Clemence, who is now CEO at curation website Boutiques Daily. All credit James with being their mentor. All insist they wouldn’t have the careers they have today without him.
In 2014, James told the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal that Acumen’s "revenue will likely hit nine figures next year, if not sooner." When asked about that figure, Davidson laughs and sighs. As a private company, Acumen refuses to disclose financial information, which includes company valuation. According to CrunchBase, Acumen has received $93 million in funding. (The most recent round was led by General Atlantic, an investor in Racked parent company Vox Media, in April 2013.)
What about sales numbers for its biggest products? The best response Nicholas Sammer, Acumen’s general manager of brands, can give me is that its top-selling boot has been "wildly successful," adding, "we literally cannot keep it on the shelves."
What about that sales map, that looks like a population map of the United States? This map is for internal purposes only, says Davidson.
For how forthcoming the company is about its accidental discovery of the country market, controversial social media strategy, and ambitious aspirations for global domination, Acumen’s leadership is tight-lipped on the nitty-gritty. It’s tough to say what the future actually holds for Country Outfitter, which experienced a restructuring and round of layoffs earlier this year.
Davidson says that Country Outfitter wants to be the "first mainstream pop culture destination" for people who live and breathe country, but besides its perceived competitor in BuzzFeed, it has powerhouse publications like People (which debuted People Country in 2006) and Rolling Stone (which launched Rolling Stone Country last year) to contend with, not to mention country lifestyle mainstays Southern Living and Country Living.
As for that top seller, Sammer says it is, by far, a collaboration between Country Outfitter's private American Rebel label and country singer John Rich’s Redneck Riviera brand. It is called The Freedom Boot. It’s red, white, and blue, and star-spangled in the most literal sense. It’s a little on the nose, but this is what Country Outfitter does best.
It sells 24 styles of American flag boots. It sells American flag tank tops, and star-emblazoned shorts, and a whole range of Americana-inspired pillows and quilts. Shop at Country Outfitter, and you can wear your patriotism on your sleeve, sheets, and feet.
For a startup that never meant to be a country brand in the first place, Acumen is steadfast in its hand-over-heart commitment. This is what it wanted those 7 million Facebook fans to understand. Country is, after all, a state of mind.
Editor: Julia Rubin