How to Compete On A Small Budget With Big Brands

This was the quintessential question Amin asked us when he first launched his jewelry site a little over a year ago. Amin is a small business owner and doesn’t have oodles of cash laying around. He also didn’t have the luxury of waiting around for inbound marketing to start working. He needed traffic yesterday to get his inventory moving. Does this sound familiar? Read on about one small business owner’s exploits in competing with the biggest jewelry brands.


The backstory

Amin knew that selling jewelry online-no matter how nice the product or competitive his prices-wouldn’t be easy. But he didn’t know just how challenging it would be, especially in the beginning. According to IBISWorld, online jewelry and watch sales is a highly fragmented vertical with the average company accounting for less than 1.0% of industry revenue. To put this in perspective, the top 3 players are Blue Nile with a market share of only 3.9%, Tiffany & Co with 2.4% and Jewelry Television with 1.2%. All of them are vying for visibility in organic search results, affiliate marketing and paid advertising.

Here’s what Amin has to say about jumpstarting his ecommerce business on a small budget:

“I started out last year selling products through online auctions while working to get SimplyBeautiful2012 running on the Magento Go platform (there will be a future post on this topic!). Once I had the website set up and running smoothly, my two staff members and I started looking for ways to drive traffic to the website. We were surprised more than once during this process.


Shopping networks

We came up with a list of shopping networks to contact in hopes of establishing relationships. We looked at large ones like Yahoo, The Find, and as well as smaller ones like Newegg and As it turned out, most of these portals denied us because they were at maximum capacity for jewelry retailers. No question we were discouraged at this point. But we decided to target a very obvious resource – Amazon. Amazon initially declined to run the ads. The stumbling block? Picture formats. That’s right- the ads were denied not for the content of their product photos but the format. The photos needed to have white backgrounds. We weren’t ready to give up, so a staff member delved into the problem and resolved it by obtaining new photos with white backgrounds and re-submitting the ads to Amazon. It looked like we were headed in the right direction now.

Amazon now required us to send in samples of the products we wanted to advertise. Score one for quality assurance from Amazon! But this did add to the time and labor involved for us. The items were sent to a laboratory of Amazon’s choosing and were analyzed to ensure that metal and jewel types were in keeping with the product descriptions in the ads. The good news, though, was that the ads were approved on a provisional basis during this testing. So our ads were live right away.

Shortly after gaining traction with Amazon, we found another victory. Despite our earlier experience being turned away from many of the shopping networks, one of the staff kept digging for opportunities. She struck veritable gold with eBay Commerce Network.

Remember those networks that declined to run ads for us previously? Imagine our surprise when acceptance into eBay Commerce Network meant that our ads would show on these other networks, too. That’s right! We couldn’t get in directly but we got in via our account with eBay. So now we are on Bing, Shopping,com, Yahoo, The Find, and others. We’ve only been at this since December of 2013 (less than 3 months at the time of this post), but we are seeing good results, to include a bounce rate that is lower than what we’re seeing from their Google PLA items. Here are the bottom line lessons we’ve learned. Perhaps you can put them to good use!

  • Returns were poor. We eventually abandoned AdWords in favor of PLA which are performing much better by comparison.
  • This has been our most consistent performer.
  • Keep in mind that user ratings of merchants on Amazon are CRITICAL. Negative feedback is the kiss of death. Deliver for customers and refund immediately if there are any hiccups.
  • Our ads appear right next to the likes of Neiman Marcus and look just as good!

  • Through trial and error, we’ve concluded that the more products in the PLA feed, the more visibility for all. When we tried adding just a few initially, the products got almost no exposure. But when the feed was beefed up to include all products, the ads started to show some return on investment. It seems a combination of the volume of products and the quality score actually has more impact than the dollar amount of the bids.
  • Return is not as good with PLA as with eBay Commerce Network, but is still sufficient for us to allocate some of our budget here.
  • Feed format is very similar to that of Google PLA so they only have to make minor adjustments to prepare the feed for upload. Also, the feed upload process is much faster with eBay than with Google.
  • Bounce rate is lower than PLA.
  • Served as a pathway to accessing several good channels where direct access had been denied.
  • Less popular networks were not only harder to access but have also shown some other drawbacks for us.
  • Many of these networks have their own shopping carts rather than funneling to the seller’s web site. This is bad for our conversion and branding.


Some tips from my staff:

  • If your advertisements are denied for any shopping channels/networks, do not be discouraged. And do not leave a vague explanation unanswered. It’s worth the time to ask questions and get to the true reason for denial even if that hasn’t been clearly provided initially. Send an email or take the time to place a phone call. It is quite possible that with a little bit of legwork and some adjustments, your ads can be approved (as with our friends and Amazon).
  • When submitting feeds, don’t just check them thoroughly before uploading. Check them again after upload to ensure there are no problems because one wrong character has the potential to ruin the whole feed.
  • Bidding for advertisements is not one size fits all. Much trial and error were necessary for us across the various shopping portals but eventually we’ve honed in on a bidding strategy that is slowly increasing our ROI and traffic.
  • Be persistent! If you’ve started with quality and value in what you’re offering, keep pushing and you will see results. They don’t come overnight but they will come!”


Our conclusions here at Bay Leaf Digital:

If you are starting an ecommerce business where you sell products with visual appeal (such as jewelry), consider doing the following:

  • Ensure that you have excellent product photos for both your website and advertisements
  • Optimize your site for search engines
  • Test a variety of channels for selling your products – Product Listing Ads (PLA) via Google and Bing, Amazon, eBay Commerce, Instagram, etc.
  • Get started with inbound marketing (social media and blogging) as a critical strategy for the long term
  • Continue optimizing your channels until you maximize the ROI

Are you a small business owner? Share your story!

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Author Profile
ashley monismith
Ashley Monismith
Ashley Monismith is a client strategist at Bay Leaf Digital, where she helps SaaS companies achieve and surpass their lead generation and brand awareness goals. In her free time, you can find Ashley hiking on nearby trails with her dog and working on various sustainability projects within her community.