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The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast

Nov 19, 2020

John Lawson, Chief Executive Officer at Colder Ice Media, started in e-commerce in 2000 on eBay. He claims that people talked about business in Ebay chat rooms, making it  “the first social commerce platform” before there was such a term.

At the time, John sold bandanas, and was pestered by constant customer questions for information on “how to fold a bandana.” So, he made a video and tracked ten thousand sales – not ten thousand dollars in sales – from that single video listing.

Today’s digital/social media was not the beginning of social commerce. John says, “No matter where you go, whether first world country or third world country, there is a central location that is a marketplace where people do commerce” and that no matter the channel, there is always a person on the other end. If you appeal to human instinct, people will respond. Commerce, by its very nature, requires human interaction and “social” should be much more broadly defined. John explains that there are social channels that many people do not recognize as social, e.g., Amazon Comments.

John wrote a book, Kickass Social Commerce, which offers universal stories of social commerce (as opposed to social media). In one story the book, he tells how Madam C.J. Walker, an African-American entrepreneur, developed a line of hair care products, marketed them to her friends, then sold them door to door, and finally had her friends set up “product presentation” parties for a cut of the sales, a sales strategy later used by such companies as Tupperware and Avon. Walker became the first self-made female millionaire in the US. John describes this as “early social marketing.”

John presented “Twenty-one Kickass Social Commerce Tactics to Sell More Today” at HubSpot’s 2020 Inbound Conference, where he talked about the phases of social that make people buy and “the flywheel of contacting, engaging, getting people to take action, and then measuring that action to create better contact.” Two key concepts he covered were:

  1. Identify and define your avatar, your King Consumer . . . and profile in detail a minimum of three people who would purchase your product.
  2. Establish a need for reciprocity. DO SOMETHING for your King Consumer that creates an imbalance that makes them feel that the need to do something for you in return.

In a candid and enlightening history lesson, John also discusses how race has impacted the growth and development of black entrepreneurship. Thank you, John.

John can be reached through “Colder Ice” on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest – almost everywhere except on Tick-Tock.

ROB: Welcome to the marketing agency leadership podcast, I'm your host, Rob Kischuk, and I'm joined today by John Lawson, Chief Executive Officer of Colder Ice Media, based in Atlanta, Georgia. Welcome to the podcast, John.

JOHN: Hey, thanks for having me, bro.

ROB: Yeah. Good to have you here. If we were you know, if it weren't COVID, we might meet up in person.

JOHN: Right?

ROB: We have an Atlanta episode today.

JOHN: Absolutely.

ROB: Well, why don't you start off, John, by giving us a rundown of Colder Ice Media and what you all do exceptionally?

JOHN: What I do exceptionally. I do e-commerce. Right. And I started my e-commerce business back in 2000 on eBay as a necessity. People were asking me the same question over and over, how to fold a bandana because I sold bandanas. It was annoying. So, I made a video on YouTube on how to fold a bandana.

I would give everybody who asked that question that link. That bandana video went completely viral. Three hundred thousand people watched the video. Out of that, we were able to track ten thousand sales – not ten thousand dollars – but actual sales from that single video listing. That was like a cavalcade of understanding for me as people started asking me, “Hey, how do you do videos for selling stuff online?” I'm like, “Answer questions that people want.”

That got me on stages. Finally I was like, “OK, if you need help with how to use social – the whole world of social – then that's what we did with Colder Ice Media.

ROB: That's a very fun story. I can see why someone would put you on stage to talk about it. I think within that, at a tactical level, there's some cleverness, I think probably in your attribution –  because when you're talking about was not the easiest time to tie through who bought this thing. So how did you sort out that people were buying OR buying more of your product from that particular video? What was your tracking?

JOHN: We would just look at the Google tag. Google tells you where traffic was coming from and we would see YouTube, YouTube, YouTube, and I'm like, “Dude, this is crazy.: And then, like you say, back in the day, the tools were not that deep, but they would show you the views. I would see these peaks and valleys in the number of views. 

The week of Halloween, the peak would be 10X normal viewership. I had no idea that Halloween would be a great time to run specials selling bandanas. And I got that kind of information just by the volume of watchers during that Halloween week. So, it's if you take all of the parts, then you start seeing trends. You can't see a trend in a month. I know people think you can, but a real trend comes over years.

When you see something happen three years, you can jump on and really take advantage of those little blips that other people are not able to see because they're just getting started. So, there's value in being there for a long haul, especially on social media.

ROB: Wow. How many YouTube channels do you have in your orbit now?

JOHN: Five. Yeah, I'm short. I will tell you one thing that I do – every time I get a new client, I create their own Google space – go out and create a Google account – because you need a Google account to create the YouTube. You're going to need that for writing or using their Google advertising. I will create that entire environment and isolate it for myself.

What we do – we can show them the value of one-to-one versus, “Oh, by the way, here's some other tracking inside of your tracking.” I'm like, “No, we're tracking this. Put this in your cart so you can see exactly what our efforts are bringing to your business.”

ROB: That makes perfect sense. You got this start in understanding on the video side, but you have this, I think, a broader intentionality around social commerce in general. How has that unfolded – your understanding from that first moment of “a video driving sales” to the broader portfolio of social platforms and tactics?

JOHN: That's great . . . I like that question. What happened with me is I got really fascinated with Twitter in the beginning. I'm talking about . . . there were like one hundred thousand people on Twitter when I joined. What was fascinating for me is that I had created this business and I left the office space and I didn't have a whole lot of conversations anymore. So, I started using Twitter to just conversate with people while I was sitting at home in my home office.

All of a sudden, it just started naturally moving into, “Hey, what do you do?” “Here's what I do.” “Oh, Ok.”

Then I start talking about what I did. The e-commerce thing just started bringing other people in that were in the same field. That made me say, “Why or what is it about being or putting your expertise out that makes people suddenly feel like you are their expert?” You hear about this – everybody today will say, if you want to be an influencer, the first thing you do is start going to places and giving your expertise, There was no playbook when I was doing this. But I would watch this happen and it would happen organically. So, you start wondering. Social is very organic. I know people think it is some technology, but it's really not. I've traveled all over the world and no matter where you go, whether first world country or third world country, there is a central location that is a marketplace where people do commerce.

In that commerce marketplace, there's always at least one coffee shop where you have social. Social and commerce go together. I tell people. Facebook was not the first social platform neither was MySpace. Actually, eBay was the first platform. Why? Back in the day, we would sit in these chat rooms while we were waiting for eBay auctions to end. A lot of people were talking about business in those chat rooms. They were a social commerce platform way before there was a term. They were doing social because social has been here since chat boards and chat rooms. AOL was Facebook, 1990.

Social has been here forever. And if you grasp what I'd like to call the flywheel of contacting, engaging, getting people to take action, and then measuring that action to create better contact  . . . it goes around and around in that flywheel. And that's kind of what I talked about when we were doing the Inbound thing. It was about the phases of social that make people buy.

ROB: Let's get right into that. We were talking beforehand. We were probably hoping to meet up at the Inbound conference and record this live and in person or in Atlanta. But we're not meeting up for things like that right now. But Inbound still happened. HubSpot’s big Inbound conference, tens of thousands of people, maybe more – online. And your session there was “Twenty-one Kickass Social Commerce Tactics to Sell More Today.” And so I'd love you to dig in and get us into some of the meat and potatoes, maybe some particular things that you saw resonate back out into your audience on Social because you probably were paying attention to that.

JOHN: Yeah, I mean, the first thing I'm all about and I tell people and Ok, I get it these do feel very, "Oh I've heard that before." And that's probably the problem is that if you've heard identify your avatar, I call him the King consumer. If you can identify and get in the mind of your King Consumer, then everything that you do after that speaks to that King Consumer. Create at least one. But I say really, at minimum three people that actually purchase your product. They can be real people or they can be fake people.

Let's say you don't have your product in market yet, or you think you know who's going to buy that product when you create this King consumer, what you have to do is start thinking about everything that that consumer is into. I want you to go deep into your thought patterns about, not just what they're what they want, but what do they need, what situation are they in? How do they know how many kids do they have? What job do they have?

 What are they what do they listen to? What do they say? What are some of the terminology they use? And the more you find that out, the better your business is going to be. I know when I created our business and I was selling those bandanas, I bought those because I was into hip hop and everybody in my neighborhood was wearing the bandanas. I could sell that to people in my sphere. But once I started putting it out there and getting the feedback from others, I was like, whoa, wait a minute; these aren't hip hoppers that are just buying these.

These are the bikers. Oh, wow, that's cool. Like I said, people do in the Halloween. Oh, Ok. Cool. And once I started asking my people, hey, how are you using that? How did you like that? You got to definitely go out there and ask. You have to ask. What you're going to learn from your ask are things you're never going to be able to come up with in your own mind. Things that you think when you think that your product and you are your customer – you're not. You're absolutely not. So back to the original question.

Identifying that King consumer is one of the things you have to do. The next thing I talk about was reciprocity. If you do something for others, there becomes an imbalance in them that makes them feel like they have to do something for you. That was the whole thing about me teaching people – and I didn't tell you that is the main question actually was – how to fold a bandana like Tupac. Right. And it's so ridiculous. But remember, this is early 2000s, so or late 2000.

So, the deal was in my mind, I'm like; everybody knows how to do that. But here's the deal. The people between the East Coast in the West Coast – those flyovers would watch videos and they wanted the same look and they didn't know. Once I taught them how to fold that bandana, then when they were making their choice on who to buy one from, they automatically thought about, “Hey, those guys taught me how to do it.” And just by the nature of who we are, we wanted to make the balance inside of ourselves with reciprocity.

So, I'll buy it from them. They might be a dollar more, but I'll go ahead and do it. So, you really want to think about that. That's human nature. We want to get in balance. We always do. If I ask all my friends to help me move, I know, when one of them asks me to help them move, I can't say no. That's reciprocity. Right?

ROB: And it's even more helpful in it's not just that they want to know this information. It's that the Internet to an extent and social have made it possible to ask questions that you're too embarrassed to ask your friends. So, you're bailing people out of feeling silly that they don't know how to fold that bandana.

JOHN: Yeah, that's true. That's true. Or, they don't even know who to ask.

ROB: Yeah. And that continues on out to – I think you look at the some of the beauty influencers and all these makeup tips. There are people who want to know how to do something with their makeup and they are embarrassed that they cannot. Yeah. YouTube bails us out of that. YouTube bailed me out of not knowing how to fix my toilet . . . anything.

JOHN: And think of who are the biggest beauty influencers out there – a lot of them are males. That's crazy, right? But you think these guys wanted to put on makeup and a lot of their audience maybe never did. So, who are you going to ask? Your sister? There's a whole lot I got to do before I ask my sister how to put on makeup, There’s a whole lot of steps I got to go through.

ROB: Yeah, you're probably not going to get a straight up answer right away on that.

JOHN: There's going to be some other conversation where exactly we need to have a deeper conversation.

ROB: Amazing. I like how the story it started out. When did you realize that you were going to be into this world of social and commerce and Colder Ice Media for the longer run? Was that evident right away? Or was there something after the instigating moment that really cemented the business for you?

JOHN: It was probably around 2012 2013. These guys were writing a column about eBay sellers and they asked me if I could do an interview as one of people who are eBay success stories. I agreed.  We get on the phone and were doing this interview and she's like, ”You’re one of ten people we're going to feature blah, blah, blah.” But we stayed on the phone for 80 to 90 minutes.

And I was like, “Just for a feature piece, this is kind of weird.” We were just having good conversation. At the end of that call . . . she and her husband are a team and write together . . . . . . at the end of the call, they said, “John, man, that was really good stuff. I think we're going to make a multipart feature just on your business.” 

I was like, “Really? That's pretty cool.” 

And then he's like, “Hey, and if you ever think about writing a book, I'd help you because we've written twenty-two books and we'd love to help you.” 

I was like, “Really?” I had never thought about writing a book before because I never thought I had much to say . . . or how much you need to say. But once we put the treatment together, it became my social commerce book. First. It was about social commerce, not just social media.

But the key thing was, I don't care how many people like me – I want you to buy from me. There are a lot of people out here who have social influence but couldn't get people to piss on them if they were on fire – they don't really have the ability to move people. There's a difference between having likes and having people that will buy from you. And that's the big difference to me in social media. For me, it was all about the commerce portion.

ROB: And what's the name of the book folks want to go . . .

JOHN: Kickass Social Commerce.

ROB: Excellent. Excellent. Any additional publishings of it or is it still pretty fresh?

JOHN: You know what? Here's the thing. When I wrote the book, I wrote it forever. Yeah, right. I did. I literally did because the concepts, again, of social and purchasing go together. So, I grabbed all of these universal stories. And one of my major stories, he first story I talk about is a woman called Madam C.J. Walker. Have you heard of her?

ROB: I am not familiar with her.

JOHN: Great. Fantastic. So, I could tell this story if you don't mind.

ROB: Go.

JOHN: All right. So, here's the deal. Madam C.J. Walker was an African-American, a black woman. OK, I like that better. Right? She was a black woman and she created a scalp ointment because her hair was falling out from straightening it. She created an ointment that would keep her hair healthy. And other women saw her hair from going to where she had maybe patches, bald spots, and not healthy hair to these long, luxurious locks. People asked, “What are you using?” She had created this thing in her kitchen and she ended up going from her sink and to the bathtub to create larger volumes of it to sell to her friends.

Well, the business starts growing and she starts going door to door to do sales. So that's the first part, right? You go from friends telling friends to going door to door. Her door to door sales grew so much that she realized that she was limited by the number of doors she could go to in a day, and that was hampering the growth of her base simply because there's only so many doors you can knock on. So, she came up with this great idea. She said, look, I'll get one of my clients that already buys for me to have a party and I'll go to the party and display my products at the party. Sound familiar?

ROB: Mmm-hmm.

JOHN: She was the one that created the model that today Mary Kay and Avon use. She created that and that was, again, social. You're expanding your network by using small influencers to bring their friends in and allowing you to do that demonstration. Of course, you would give them a cut for the party. Ultimately, she built a house bigger than the White House . . . and this was in 1918.

This is she is the first self-made female millionaire in America. She was ranked number six of the top 10 entrepreneurs in Entrepreneur magazine for all time, one of the greatest success stories. But I tell this story because, as I was listening and reading and researching, I realized how social media can grow for commerce because. literally, she had her own, quote “Facebook” by doing what she did with these people. So, it's universal. I wrote from that understanding . . . from that standpoint.

ROB: Yeah. You can imagine a version of a book on social commerce that would get nitty-gritty – focus very much on the popular channels, marketing channels of the day, would talk about specific ad-spending tactics – and it would have a very short shelf life. But I get the sense from talking to you that you define social channels – and you did this a little bit with eBay – you define that remarkably differently from many people. So, when we think about social channels today, what are some other channels you think may not be intuitively understood as social, but yet are extremely so?

JOHN: Hmm, that's a good question.

ROB: Because we could talk about Tick-Tock, but we don't and we can, but we don't have to. I don't think you could write a book with a long shelf life if that was your frame of mind.

JOHN: Right. Because the channels always change their rules. Yeah. But if your understanding is, no matter what their handle is, there is a person on the other end and there are certain things that we . . . we as humans are just a higher level of animals and there's certain habits that we have that we're always going to use. No matter what channel you use to get there, if you nail that human instinct, they're going to respond to it. Here's what I give you that you wouldn't think of: Amazon comments. Amazon comment, that is a social channel. There are some people that do nothing but read and post or try things and post and then they read other stuff from people. And then they respond in those posts. They do this all day long. Why are they doing that? Because that's their social world.

ROB: Hmm. Have you seen some people using Slack communities in a business context, maybe?

JOHN: Yes, absolutely. Because what they're doing now is they're getting people away – moreso Reddit. I mean, Reddit, its killer. Reddit is really killer. But a Slack community is a great way to get people that are interested in a specific topic away from the distraction that is social media, especially in an election year.

ROB: Hmm, right. Plenty of that.

JOHN: There's so much of that. And people's moods are being changed sometimes by the constant back and forth in these major social channels like Facebook or Twitter. It gets distracting. So, you get your people out from there into a nice global world that doesn't have all the noise in it.

ROB: Mm-hmm. Yeah, it's almost in some cases, there's too much – If you were in a room, there are some rooms where there's too much shouting to be helpful. You can't help people who are in the middle of a fight.

JOHN: Right. Exactly. It's like it's really hard to get my attention when there's a train wreck right in front of us.

ROB: What does that pivot point look like? What's it look like? What's an example – help us kind of think through it and catalyze our thinking – of someone who's commenting on reviews on Amazon and they're selling something and it's driving – I understand it conceptually, but it's a bit abstract. Is there a concrete example you've seen where they comment on this thing because they were selling this other thing?

JOHN: Well, what ends up happening is, if you comment a lot, Amazon flags you as a commenter. Once you get that known as a trusted source, once you get that flagging, then other people that are trying to get reviews by people that have that tag or that flag will start reaching out to send you products.

ROB: Got it.

JOHN: Right. So, here's the deal. Once you recognize that people are gravitating to you, starting to ask you for your opinion, you’ve probably got something going on there. I've got a client right now that built a business – and this is so weird – around selling old music media. So, it's flipping CDs. Who buys a CD today? Why don’t I get that? I didn't get that. I get it now. He's done six figures just teaching people how to look for CDs at garage sales and thrift stores. That's just amazing to me. You wouldn't think there was a community around that before this. I just never knew. So, there are a lot of niches – there are people that do nothing but needlepoint – there's a niche for darn near everything and it doesn't take a lot of people for you to reach out and find an audience that will either purchase from you or take your recommendations and purchase other things so you can become that influencer for that thing.

ROB: Right. It's like the kind of the Kevin Kelly conversation, around a thousand true fans and there are lots of thousands of fans that are looking to be with him. 

JOHN: Who did you say?

ROB: Kevin Kelly, I think.

JOHN: Who's Kevin Kelly? Wait a minute, is not the original?

ROB: It might be. Where have you heard it most?

JOHN: I'm just going to check this out because. Ok, says Kevin Kelly. Interesting. I'm thinking. Anyway, go ahead. Go ahead. I want to talk about it, Ok? got it. Technically.

ROB: Yep.

JOHN: Yep. Yeah, absolutely. Because it's funny you say that. When it first came out, I was so into that. The reason why I was into it, just to go a little bit backwards. is because I'm a huge Prince fan. When Prince left the label, he left a multi-million-dollar deal with Warner Brothers. He was like, “You know what? You can have my entire song category. I just want to be free.” And I was like, “What the hell?” Right after that, he put out his own album.

This was the early 90s, He used like a chat room, basically a chat board, to sell a hundred thousand records. Now, this is a man that sold 10 million records for just his Purple Rain album and now he's selling a hundred thousand. And he said, “You know what? I made more off that hundred thousand records than I ever made off of Purple Rain. And when that thousand true fans came out, I was like, ‘Wow’.” That is the basis from where I teach. If you can get a thousand true fans, you’re in.

ROB: That's amazing, I didn't know that story about Prince, but even in the music world, it brings me forward even to someone like Run the Jewels. Their first album, they put it on their website for free. And they kept on doing their albums for free. And now their albums are basically for free, even if on Spotify. But they were able to cut through a lot of noise and find their fans a lot faster, but still make a living and in a way that is far beyond just selling music.

JOHN: Right. Most musicians don't make their money off selling music anyway. That's why they have to tour. Yeah. They have to tour to pay for everything because, I mean, the music business is an amazing thing. I don't want to go into how they really do their business, but let's put it like this: If you sell a million records, you're probably not a millionaire.

ROB: Yeah, man. Well, John, this is this is quite a knowledge drop here. I hope that when we're back to meeting in person, people will get a chance to get out and see you and meet you and hear you. When people want to find you and when they want to find Colder Ice Media, where should they go to track you down?

JOHN: Just put in Colder Ice. That's all you got to do. Put it in your browser and I will show up I'm Colder Ice on every platform. I am one of those branding crazy people that did that a long time ago. And I'm Colder Ice on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest. I don't care where you go. Pretty much I own Colder Ice except for Tick-Tock. Somebody stopped me on Tick-Tock.

ROB: Oh man, that's tough. Well maybe you can make a phone call at some point and get it unlocked for Colder Ice. The handle you reserve when you were early on Twitter, did you get another good Twitter handle early.

JOHN: Man, you are just pulling out all the good stories. But my name is so common. John Lawson. When I first looked it up, there were like eight million John Lawsons. I had the story in my head. I remember this story that back in segregation – a lot of people don't understand this, but African-Americans are some very original entrepreneurs, not because we had the entrepreneurial spirit – but you had to be an entrepreneur if you wanted to feed your family. You couldn't I couldn't walk into the regular grocery store and buy groceries back then. You had to have a black-only grocery store.

There was a black-only cab company. There was a black-only bus company, black-only hotels. All of that. Run by black people because “white people wasn't sharing.” But literally, those storefronts that were serving the black community, the day that integration became the norm, they would see their customers walk right past their storefronts to go shop downtown. They came up with the saying, “Well, I guess the white man's ice is colder.” And I always remember that: colder ice. That's the story.

ROB: Wow, I didn't know that either and you’re gracious in your history lessons. There's a lot of strong feelings tied up in that. I know. We're all trying to figure out different ways to actually be sorry and be better.

JOHN: No, we're all getting better, man. That it's all good effects on your ear. That's the great story of America.

ROB: Well, John, thank you for coming on again. I can't wait to get out and hear you share something in real life, but I appreciate you joining virtually as well. And I think our audience is better for it as well.

JOHN: This was a great interview. I really had fun.

ROB: Thank you. Thank you for listening. The marketing agency leadership podcast is presented by Converged. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting email or visit us on the web at