How e.l.f. Became a Social Media Giant

Few brands have had as singular a focus on social media as e.l.f., a cosmetics line that does zero in the way of traditional advertising yet has strong working relationships with about 500 bloggers. As the CMO for e.l.f. (the acronym stands for Eyes Lips Face), Ted Rubin is known for his active use of Twitter (where he has 20,000 followers) and his responsiveness. Rubin, a former protege of Seth Godin, says he responds to every tweet he gets. The social media outreach, along with distribution at Target, a recession-friendly price of $1 per item and a positive review in O: The Oprah Magazine two years ago have helped e.l.f. build a strong brand on the cheap. Brandweek spoke with Rubin about his thoughts on traditional advertising, social media and why larger brands like Coca-Cola can benefit from e.l.f’.’s strategy. Excerpts from the interview appear below:

Brandweek: Your philosophy is not to spend any money on traditional media, right?
Ted Rubin:
It’s more than a philosophy, it’s part of our business model and part of what allows us to sell products at the prices we do. So it’s not just a philosophy and the reason I point that out is I work with a lot of bloggers and as bloggers are getting more sophisticated and are earning money from certain brands, they come to me for sponsorships and things and I can legitimately tell them that I can’t do it. It’s not that we don’t want to do it or we don’t want to spend the money there, it’s just not the way we operate.

BW: We’ve seen companies like Google and Starbucks that never advertised suddenly advertise. Do you see that happening at e.l.f.?
It’s hard to say. I believe at some point it will have to change, but I believe that the founders—and take this in the most positive light—are very spoiled. They got success from day one and they’re very used to things working right away. So they’re not used to putting in money to make things work, but if you want to grow and expand past a certain point there are chances that you have to take and that could mean trying out traditional ads.

BW: Regarding social media, is most of your focus on Twitter or is it Facebook?
My philosophy is that Twitter and Facebook are what leads into other forms of social sharing. I consider Twitter a place to lay the groundwork where other people pick up things. I make a great use of Twitter and Facebook not only to reach out to the public, but to build relationships with stronger mediums, like the blogging community. We have 500 bloggers that I deal with regularly that are on my list regularly to contact about products, about changes, about updates and they’re not like an e-mail list that you’d get on if you sign up with e.l.f. With the bloggers, it’s a much more direct relationship. I focus on Twitter and Facebook because they’re scalable platforms, but I do that to build up what I feel are the real advocacy groups which are the bloggers and the people on YouTube.

BW: How much of this is CRM and how much is marketing?
Personally, I believe CRM and marketing go hand in hand and I believe it is a problem in a lot of corporations. I think customer service should come under that realm as well. In a company where customer service doesn’t come under the CMO or at the very least if there’s not somebody in charge of customer service who’s not working hand in hand with them is a big disconnect, because if you’re saying one thing in, especially in social media marketing and they’re experiencing something else, there’s going to be a problem.

Todd Wasserman is a freelance writer who was formerly the business editor of Mashable and the editor-in-chief of Adweek’s Brandweek.