Have you seen those videos of dogs tearing into a box full of toys and treats every month?
Subscribers to BarkBox, the monthly delivery service that brings products tailored to your dog’s size and sensibility, snap photos or videos to post on social media of their dogs enjoying a fresh delivery. After all, nearly every piece of packaging and paper in the box reminds dog owners to use the hashtag #barkboxday—a trademark as consistent as their effort to infuse humor in every consumer interaction they have with Barkbox or parent company Bark.
Because of the way people relate to their pets now (about 44 percent of millennials alone consider their pets as “starter children”), Bark is able to captivate two major audiences: dog owners and dog people. “Our audience is just people who love dogs,” said Stacie Grissom, head of content. “We start conversations about dogs and form relationships with people around dogs in general. And 85 percent of our content doesn’t even mention BarkBox specifically.”
With 500,000 subscribers to its delivery service and over 4 million fans on Facebook and Instagram, BarkBox’s social media team creates original video content and shares relatable memes with its followers in order to remind them of the emotional connection humans have with their furry friends. “We use mission-based marketing at an ambition-based company,” said CMO Jay Livingston, who joined Bark from Bank of America this July. “By not holding our social team to reach sales requirements, we give them an environment to create entertaining content to reach our highly engaged audience.”
In other words, the content that gets produced for BarkBox’s social channels will hopefully inspire people to become subscribers or consumers, but its main intent is to entertain a dog-loving audience—and to do that, it turned to a unique source.
“If our social media team was run by marketers, you’d see a lot more photos of just the box and our products from that month,” said Bark’s marketing director Rachel Mansfield. “Our team of comedians finds ways to creatively produce silly videos that highlight our products in our own way. We’re coming up with the stories around our monthly themes six months in advance, and the people on our social teams are in the room brainstorming with the marketing team. That thread of humor is throughout everything.”
Bark started manufacturing its own products in 2012, and by early 2017, about 90 percent of its toys were made by the company itself. In August 2017, those Bark Original toys became distributed in special sections of Target stores across the United States.
In November, Bark released its first major TV spot; airing on more than 25 networks including Animal Planet, Freeform and Lifetime, the 30-second spot was largely inspired by the user generated content that appears on social media feeds. The shoot took about 12 hours, while the shoot for a recent two-minute comedic video about dog moms during the holidays took about four days. The new sketch touches on what BarkBox videos often encompass: the weird dogs we live with and the funny things they do.
“We let dogs be dogs, instead of models, in our content,” said Mansfield. “When you see them, you’re like, ‘Oh, Noodle is basically a potato.'”
Grissom added that Barkbox strives for authenticity in a world that “wants idiosyncrasies” and is “bored of perfect.”
“Whether we’re telling a fart joke or sharing a sentimental story or a pug puppy that looks like a meatball, we have to have an air of authenticity,” Grissom said. “We’ve found an iceberg of a population who’s just like us, total weirdos about their dogs. Dogs aren’t liars. So we try to be as authentic as they are.”
This means the social media team has to combine the structure of an edit calendar with the gut instincts of a comedy writer. Often, someone will send a text at 7 p.m. on a Friday of something funny they made, and the team decides to put it up right away, even if it doesn’t fit a plan or hasn’t been fully approved by verticals.
“There’s a strategy for everything we do, but we have no idea what we’re doing,” said Bark content lead Jonathan Graziano, who previously worked for a digital agency. “We never know if something will be found universally funny, but we get obsessed with one of our dogs who loves to lick a couch.”
By giving this team the freedom to be humorous and experimental, BarkBox has allowed its social media presence to be more than just a marketing tool or distribution platform. It has welcomed entertaining content into a company dedicated to enriching dogs’ lives.
“The internet is not a place where you can behave like a more traditional company,” said Grissom. “By going through multiple levels of compliance, or having the legal team look through, you stop people from reaching an authentic place in their content.”
While the team doesn’t always know what will work best for their audience, they follow their intuition and learn from any missteps. Some consumers, for example, aren’t thrilled if content uses semi-explicit dog sexual activity for a joke, while others love and share this content because it matches their own sense of humor.
“There’s a healthy tension between what your audience reacts to and what you think is funny,” said Katie Kirnan, supervising producer at BarkBox. “You won’t know your boundaries until you push them, and we want to produce content that we believe in.”
“Yes, we’re trying to sell you something,” said Graziano, “but even if you don’t want it, we’re making sure the content is still valuable to your time. Marketing has its objectives, but so does entertainment. Plus, it’s more fun to sell stuff to dogs than it is to sell stuff to people.”