Who Gives A Crap: How One Toilet Paper Brand is Handling Customer Acquisition and Retention | Coronavirus Series

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series that explores the impact the coronavirus crisis is having on the world of ecommerce. Here are additional resources to help you navigate your marketing strategy during this time. 


What happens when people start to panic-buy essential products like toilet paper amid a global pandemic? Widespread sell-outs. 

And if a brand’s products are completely out of stock, both in-store and online, how can they continue to serve, engage, and retain customers? 

Mike Altman, senior retention manager at Who Gives A Crap, recently told me how the online toilet paper subscription brand is handling this particular challenge and what it means for the experiences they create for their customers. 

Read on to learn about some of the customer engagement strategies Who Gives A Crap is using to navigate this unprecedented time. 


Katie Tierney: How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted your business? 

Mike Altman: We sell toilet paper, so for us, obviously, we’re completely sold out. We saw everything happen really fast. Within days, we were doing 8-10X in sales. 

Mike Altman, senior retention manager, Who Gives A Crap

We have a product that’s a commodity. The whole business is built on the idea of taking something that you don’t really think about often, buying toilet paper, and making it easy and delightful, and we donate 50 percent of our profits. That said, it’s still a product that everyone needs. 

Australia is our primary market, so that’s where we first saw sales really start to spike. Then we saw it happen in the UK, and then, in the US, the panic buying started. We have a remote culture, but our whole team had to start to communicate really fast because our stock position was diminishing. 

Our product is produced in China. Our suppliers and our factories are all safe, and we’ve been working with them really closely. We’re actually hiring more on our production team right now to expand the capacity to work with our partners and we plan to continue expanding our production there.  

While we’re currently sold out online, we’re reserving stock for our recurring subscribers, so anyone who has a subscription with Who Gives A Crap can expect to get their package.


Katie: I saw on your website that you give visitors the ability to sign up for your waitlist and you’ll notify them when your products are back in stock. Were back in stock alerts something you were previously doing or did you implement this strategy as a result of the current crisis?

Mike: Yes, we were using back in stock flows through Klaviyo before this happened. We had a flow set up for when things were going out of stock, but we didn’t have flows set up specifically to handle a complete product outage. 

Luckily, our team is super agile. We had a lot of these things set up in Klaviyo and our Shopify Plus store, so we were able to create an accurate account of where we are with our inventory, and then set those limits so we could enable our full website pop over to immediately let visitors know that we’re out of stock. Within an hour, we could be bringing products onto our store and then triggering the back in stock flows by SKU. That was quite easy. 


Katie: Tell me a bit more about the website pop over you mentioned and how you’re managing customer expectations.

Mike: We’re not allowing new subscriptions until we start to get our stock back, but we’re honoring replenishments for any existing subscribers who have an active subscription with us to the best of our ability. 

We started using the full site pop over I mentioned because we really can’t have people placing orders right now—we don’t want to commit to packages we can’t fulfill at the moment.


We also have a persistent banner and we’re using the back in stock flow feature as I mentioned. We’ve seen a good amount of people sign up for the waitlist because of that feature. 

We’re also working on adjusting the content in our back in stock flow and we’re developing content in Klaviyo to start to prepare for how we can best set expectations for those people who sign up for the waitlist. 

We’ll likely change some of our existing back in stock templates because we’re getting so many new customers to sign up for the list. Maybe they had heard of us because they saw that their local supermarket went out of supply and then they Googled “online toilet paper” or something like that. 

Before this happened, we were also starting to run some out-of-home campaigns in Australia, which we’ve put a pause on right now, as well.


Katie: When it comes to your marketing strategies, how do you plan to continue your marketing efforts while you’re sold out? 

Mike: We had to turn off a lot of our paid media and advertising, and I’m sure that’s a hard decision that a lot of marketers are having to make. We’ve had to hold back because of our product inventory. We could be running ads asking people to sign up for a waitlist, but that’s not on-brand for us. 

I’m seeing ads for brands that are continuing as usual, and it feels very jarring—that’s my personal opinion. We don’t want to give people information that then they can’t do anything with—we want to be really useful so I think the best thing we can do is to keep our customers up to date with the most transparent information we can give them.


When you look at the pop over on our website, it encourages generosity. So we’re asking people who have rolls to share them with a friend. And we’re working really hard right now to identify how to best get stock to people who need it the most, like those who are vulnerable or elderly.

We’re focusing now on how do we best use the resources we have to do the most good, which is the ethos of the brand. 


Katie: What are some things you’re doing to keep existing customers engaged right now? 

Mike: We know that everyone’s in this together so we’re trying to be human and you can see that in our messaging on our website. You can see that on our blog, in our emails, and on our social channels. If you look at our Instagram for example, you can see a post that says, “Surely we’re not the only parents who are trying everything to avoid turning on Peppa Pig for the rest of this quarantine. Because it is SO TEMPTING.”


We’re engaging our customers and asking them things like, “What are you doing to entertain your kids at home?” We want to provide a friendly and hopeful voice. And we’re trying to spread some joy. We’re asking people to #PlyItForward.



We’ve seen people going to local libraries and sharing their rolls with people who need them. We’re trying to promote generosity and show our customers appreciation.  

Our mission is related to building toilets and promoting handwashing and proper sanitation around the world, so there’s never been a time when that’s been more important. We don’t want to guilt people into doing these things. What we’re trying to do is provide either helpful tips or conversation on our blog and then through our emails. 

Other than that, we’re mostly just updating our current customers and subscribers by giving them very tactical information on how they can manage their subscription. 


Katie: Once you learn more about those people who became new customers during this crisis, do you think you’ll create different types of marketing campaigns than you normally would in order to retain these new buyers?

Mike: Yes. I think anytime you see an influx of new customers, especially during a major event like this, from a marketing perspective, you can expect that they may behave differently than your previous cohorts. 

Our first step will be to get a baseline understanding of that new audience and then we’ll likely create a new onboarding experience for this group, which we’ve already been working on. 

There’s actually, surprisingly, a lot to unpack with our toilet paper. A lot of these newer customers may not know that our products have very little plastic in them or that we work towards the highest levels of social and environmental impact. They may not understand the difference between recycled type toilet paper and bamboo toilet paper, and what those differences mean. And they may not be familiar with what brand stands for and what our mission is all about. 

Right now, we’re trying to segment our audience to understand, out of all the people who signed up to receive updates from us, who is in each group and how large is each group? Then, we want to separate the new customers from the returning customers and try to share that new onboarding story.


Katie: What would be your best piece of advice that you could share with fellow DTC marketers right now who are facing similar challenges?

Mike: Stay human and stay nimble. I think those are both really important. People appreciate we’ve been transparent with what’s happening with our product and we try to update them as much as possible. We’ve been nimble by trying to get as much information on our website – in our pop over and our banners. We also have a blog that we’re updating regularly. 

We started a blog to make this something really fun. We’ve launched a blog called Talking Crap, and we’re using it to give people updated information.

Another piece of advice for email marketers is that when you have moments like this, you really need to be careful about what you send in your campaigns and what’s on your website. You have a lot more control over your website, especially if you need to give very timely updates. You can use your campaigns to drive people to your website with a message like, “Hey, we have an update for you. Come here.” If they open your email two weeks after you send it, you’ll be sending them to the most up-to-date information possible. 

That staying nimble piece is really important to set expectations and be clear with the communication. On purpose, we decided to put all of our information on our website, and we’re focusing on using email to give people only the updates they need in their inbox and then we direct them to the site for more information. And with all of that, we try to maintain a very human tone. 


Katie: What do you suspect some of the lessons of this crisis will be for DTC marketers going forward? What’s it teaching your team about how you operate your business, how you market your products, or how you plan for the future?

Mike: I think we just don’t know right now. For us, we’re continuing to build our business and our brand. In a couple of months, people might stop buying. They might have too much toilet paper. We just don’t know. But what’s important is that we maintain steady communication with the audience we build. 

On the business side, one thing that’s really important is to make sure there’s a really tight-knit working relationship between a marketing team, a product team, those who work on inventory, and in finance. Always knowing how we’re doing on stock position is going to be really important to be able to manage customer expectations and make sure we’re delivering on the promise that we make with our marketing.

We’re making sure that we’re able to deliver and delight with our product, and with the product experience. I think it will be challenging for other companies just to deliver on what they market. I think we’re there, we’re doing our best, but it’s so important for all businesses to make sure your team is really tight-knit because I’m sure inventory and logistics will continue to be challenging for the next couple of months.

Another thing we’ll all have to think about is how we speak to people. As marketers, we have to be very perceptive about how our audience is feeling. Think about all the marketing they’re receiving and the news they’re consuming right now. We’ve had a really human tone to our brand. It’s been about generosity. It’s been about doing good. And I think that’s very aligned with the human spirit. Brands will likely have to adjust how they speak to customers and be very attuned to when their audience is overwhelmed by a crisis or something else.

Looking for more insights to help you navigate your marketing strategy amid the coronavirus pandemic? Check out these resources

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