How E-Commerce ASOS Grew it's Business & Instagram in the Midst of the Pandemic

It’s been almost a year since the coronavirus forced most of the world into lockdown. The quarantine and its resulting impact was a giant challenge for everyone– individuals, businesses, and governments alike. In the business sector, some companies were forced to shut down, although others found surprise success. E-commerce site ASOS was one of the latter.

In 2020, ASOS increased its sales and annual profits, as well as its number of customers and Instagram followers. We’re going to examine how they did that, and what role influencers played in their marketing strategy.

About ASOS

Founded in London in 2000, ASOS has never had a brick-and-mortar location. The brand sells fashion, accessories and cosmetics solely online. Its name originally stood for As Seen On Screen, as the brand’s focal point was selling affordable imitations of clothes worn on TV and in movies.

With time, ASOS dropped the as seen on-screen angle and started selling its own brands, among hundreds of others popular with young people, like Nike, Adidas, River Island, Topshop and MAC Cosmetics. The brand also built diversity into its core values and is a partner of GLAAD and the British Paralympic Association.

An Instagram post from fashion influencer @shelbykinsxo.

ASOS also offers free shipping and returns and a visual search technology called StyleMatch to help encourage sales among its 20-something target base. From the ASOS app, customers can take or upload a photo of a garment they like, and the app finds the most similar results on ASOS’ e-commerce site.

Long story short: ASOS is an e-commerce well-prepared for the 21st century and its unique challenges and opportunities. So it’s no wonder they managed to turn a profit during 2020, one of the most difficult years in recent memory.

ASOS’s 2020 success in figures

We briefly mentioned above that the company increased both its total sales and annual profits before tax. Let’s look a bit closer at that data and a few other key points of success from 2020:

- Total sales reached £3.26B, higher than its £2.73B in 2019 (19% increase)

- Annual profits before tax rose from £33.1M in 2019 to £142.1M in 2020 (329% increase)

- An influx of 3.1M new customers put the company’s total customer base at 23.4M

- The brand’s Instagram account enjoyed steady growth of 1.16M new followers, bringing their total follower count to 11.06 million, as seen in the graphic below.

ASOS's Instagram growth between December 2019 and January 2021, according to a Heepsy analysis.

Moreover, by October 2020, ASOS had paid back around £3B to the British government for furlough funds claimed in April for around 1,000 employees.

How did they do it?

So how did ASOS manage this success? Let’s look at the brand’s strategy as well as the role social media played in it.

ASOS’ strategy, in its own words

In its year-end report, ASOS said:

A quote from ASOS's end of year report talking about growth in sales of casual-wear and other lockdown relevant products.

ASOS credits quick adaptation as the main key to its success, particularly to changes in operations, disruption in its supply chains, and shifting consumer demands. The brand began to change its content marketing priorities from street style, to home style, with new focuses on sportswear and loungewear. In fact, new demand for sportswear drove sales of those products up by 50%.

ASOS also noted that new Covid-19 safety measures increased costs at its warehouses, but this was balanced out by “more deliberate purchasing behavior” from its customers. The idea here is that customers are less likely to return the types of products purchased during lockdown (sportswear, loungewear, skincare, etc.) than other types of merchandise like formal wear.

The role of social media

It goes without saying that the company’s success during the pandemic would have been impossible without digital technology. And social media is obviously a part of that.

In 2020, social media was a necessary channel for marketing efforts, and for staying in touch with consumers. People were spending more time on social media than usual, and could access social networks from wherever they were in quarantine with just a mobile device.

A company like ASOS is used to the digital landscape. They understand how to navigate social media campaigns. So it’s not a surprise that in a year in which we were forced to go digital, they managed to get 3.1M new customers. The brand’s lack of physical retail locations and consumers’ inability to shop freely outside of their homes points to these new customers being acquired purely through digital channels.

When we take into account that the brand also acquired over 1M new Instagram followers, we can assume that the platform had a starring role in ASOS’ digital marketing efforts in 2020. And that makes sense, as the brand’s target audience of 20-somethings is also the largest age demographic of Instagram users. ASOS and Instagram appear to be a match made in heaven.

So how did ASOS approach its Instagram strategy in 2020? Well, there’s no one single angle, but influencers definitely played a part throughout all of the year.

What role did influencers play in this success story?

ASOS posts a lot. According to Heepsy’s analysis, the brand’s average post frequency on Instagram is 48 posts per week. That’s 6.85 posts per day.

Data from Heepsy showing ASOS posts 48 times per week on Instagram.

By comparison, larger e-commerces like Amazon and AliExpress post 1.7 and 10 times per week, respectively. So clearly, ASOS is digging into its Instagram strategy more than some other famous e-commerce platforms.

How do you maintain that fast-paced posting rhythm, especially during a pandemic, when you may not have the same creative resources you’re used to? In ASOS’ case, by relying on content created by fans, followers and influencers.

Branded hashtags and reposted content

ASOS regularly uses branded hashtags, like #ASOSFLEXCREW, #ASOSDESIGNmusthaves, and specifically during the pandemic, #AtHomeWithASOS.

Branded hashtags are beneficial to brands for a few reasons. First, you can track the hashtag and see how many and who are talking about your brand. Second, you can discover new influencers for paid collaborations among your fans who want to get your attention. And finally, you can source content from influencers to repost to your account.

ASOS doesn’t really use models on its social media account. Or at least, not models in the traditional sense of the word. Nearly all of its content comes from reposts of influencers’ content.

Some of these influencers are ASOS Insiders, a type of in-house influencer and/or employee signed on with the brand for a long-term collaboration. These ASOS Insiders, like @asos_scarlet in the photo above, produce content specifically for ASOS from a branded Instagram account.

An Instagram post from @asos_scarlet, an ASOS Insider.

Others are influencers from around the world who post their own content that features ASOS products. Whether or not the products are gifted or the collaborations are paid is unclear. But when you consider the value of a brand with some 11M followers reposting your content, we can say that the collaborations have some value attached.

Sourcing content from its in-house influencers and people around the world who are already fans of the brand gives ASOS a definite edge when it comes to keeping up with that fast-paced content posting. It also allows the brand to pick and choose from a wide variety of diverse individuals, which gives representation to a multitude of unique backgrounds and perspectives.

An Instagram post from @pyperamerica that the ASOS brand account reposted.

Changing content themes

Another way ASOS adapted to the pandemic and managed to grow its Instagram following and customer base relates to the themes of the content posted by the brand. There were two major shifts in the brand’s content: location and type of product featured.

Even in late February, ASOS’s Instagram still showed influencer content set on sunny beaches and in the airport.

Content that ASOS reposted shortly before the worldwide lockdown, showing influencer traveling.

But once the pandemic hit, there was a drastic change in the type of content the brand reposted. Naturally, most contents was set indoors, or perhaps in a backyard or other isolated outdoor setting. As it was impossible to book studios and assemble creative teams, ASOS once again relied on influencers and their creativity to steer this change in the right direction.

Additionally, the types of clothes featured started to steer away from beachwear, formal wear and going-out clothes and toward sleepwear, sportswear and casual-cute. The brand also reposted influencer content revolving around beauty at home, like face masks and nail looks.

An Instagram post from @poseandrepeat showing off casual wear, which ASOS reposted to its own account.

This shift stayed with the account throughout the year. In August, September and even December, sportswear and casual clothes were still the focal point of the brand’s influencer-sourced content.

A grid showing content posted by ASOS from August to December of 2020.

We already know this was something the brand did intend to keep up with the change in demand for different types of products. So what’s the effect on the user? If you’re stuck at home, or working from home, or trying to avoid the gym, then ASOS was showing you content that was valuable to you.

Maybe you’d discover some new workout clothes, a good Zoom makeup look, or something comfortable to brighten your spirits during the global pandemic. ASOS quickly understood that its customers’ lives had been drastically changed. It analyzed trends and identified their demands. And then it delivered them.

Engagement-focused content

ASOS also worked with influencers to publish content designed to keep followers interested and engaged. Giveaways, tutorials, and educational posts all played a role in this area.

In November, ASOS collaborated with Leigh Anne Pinnock (@leighannepinnock), a British singer and member of the girl group Little Mix. Leigh Anne worked on her own Style Edit, a type of capsule collection chosen by the influencer from ASOS products. Leigh Anne promoted ASOS on her account, did a Q&A session and helped the brand host a giveaway. and

A post from Leigh Anne Pinnock and another from ASOS, both about their collaboration giveaway.

Giveaways are a great way to boost followers and engagement. Participants generally have to follow the brand/influencer accounts and like and/or comment on the giveaway post. These new followers might not be around forever, but at least you have the chance to prove to them that your brand’s account is worth following. And those likes and comments have a direct impact on your engagement rate.

Using IGTV, ASOS shared content designed to educate followers about important issues or to engage them with fitness and DIY tutorials.

A sample of Instagram Reels posted by ASOS in June 2020, with topics about trans and race issues, workouts, and DIYs.

On Youtube, the brand launched Created By You, a series of DIY upcycling videos. The first garnered 257.7K views and a 7.29% engagement rate. In the video, Gigi Goode, runner-up on Season 12 of the reality TV competition RuPaul’s Drag Race, shows you how to transform a dumpy oversize shirt into an on-trend two-piece. ASOS also promoted the video on its Instagram account, as did Gigi, who has 1.1M followers.

DIY tutorials, home workouts, and mindfulness moments served to connect the brand to its followers in a way that goes beyond just consumption. When people are stuck at home, or furloughed with too much free time, or going through stress related to the pandemic, this type of content can serve as a distraction. It can provide a sense of comfort or community. And that positive experience is good for branding and engagement.

ASOS also tackled topics that relate back to its commitment to inclusion and diversity. 2020 was a tumultuous year in other ways besides the pandemic, and the brand responded to that. For example, ASOS teamed up with writer and actor Brandon K. Good for an explanation of the importance of Juneteenth, which came just a month after protests broke out around the world in response to the death of George Floyd.

We can’t say for sure that ASOS’s educational content appeals to all of its followers. But the company makes a point to brand itself in a certain way and then uses its social media to prove that branding. The benefit of influencers here is that ASOS can delegate educational content to people who genuinely know what they’re talking about. For every issue, there’s an influencer who has actually lived it, and who can therefore create content that is more authentic to that topic.

Takeaways

The key to ASOS’s success in both sales and social media is threefold. First, the brand adapted its operations quickly, analyzed changing trends and identified its customers’ shifting demands. Second, e-commerce recognized the importance of social media as a means of communication during the lockdown.

Finally, it used influencers as a source of content to maintain its social media presence. It relied on their imagination during a time when traditional fashion shoots were impossible. It also stayed true to its branding and recruited influencers of all types to create an inclusive community.

Your e-commerce might not be able to duplicate ASOS’s success to the same scale. But the ability to adapt, the importance of social media and the power of influencers are three takeaways that can be applied just the same regardless of your size and budget.

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