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259: Traeger Grills’ 10-Figure Smoking Gun: A Holistic Growth Strategy

Posted by Austin Brawner on July 7, 2020

Holistic marketing unifies your brand across all marketing channels and makes it stand out from the competition.

Jesse Semchuck, Director of Acquisition for Traeger Grills, joins us to share how a holistic growth strategy has contributed to Traeger’s success. He outlines the makeup of his marketing team, how internal teams and third-party agencies interact, and how a holistic growth approach can create more synergy across all marketing initiatives and the organization.  

Tune in and find out if holistic marketing is something you should use in your business.


Episode Highlights

  • 5:59 Jesse Semchuck’s role at Traeger Grills and what he’s been excited to build over the last year
  • 7:55 The difference between selling mattresses and selling smoker grills
  • 9:18 What’s working well for Traeger Grills right now
  • 11:14 The makeup of Jesse’s marketing team 
  • 12:37 Questions Jesse asks when thinking about strategic scaling and how he decides which marketing channels to focus on
  • 17:06 Why low ROAS isn’t always a bad thing and the importance of understanding how different channels impact one another
  • 20:13 When is the right time to invest in a full funnel holistic approach to your marketing
  • 22:42 What most people do wrong when hiring an agency, and a better way to approach it
  • 26:58 How internal team interaction with agencies is structured at Traeger Grills
  • 29:00 Questions to ask a potential agency partner
  • 30:57 When to outsource to an agency versus keeping things in house 
  • 32:31 Agency red flags to watch out for

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Austin Brawner: What's up everybody. Welcome back to another episode of the Ecommerce Influence Podcast. My name is Austin Brawner.

Andrew Foxwell: And I'm Andrew Foxwell. I tell you, Austin, I have been absolutely loving your emails lately. You have hit a stride. They are so helpful. I'm not just blowing smoke. They are so interesting. They're so genuinely you. Honestly, if people are listening to this and you're not subscribed, how do you get subscribed to your emails?

Austin Brawner: So, we just built a page actually to make it easier. So, you can go to, and sign up. Usually, I'll send out one on Thursday and maybe one another day of the week, depending on how much time I've got and depending on what's happening in the world and what needs to be addressed. But yeah, check it out. If you guys are not on the email list, I think we've got about 4500, something like that. Right now, it's mostly eCommerce business owners and marketers. So, that's a good spot. And you've also got a newly launched email list. Tell us about it.

Andrew Foxwell: So we decided, one of these things is crazy, right? Is keeping up with the Facebook and Instagram ad news and even a little bit of TikTok, a little bit of Snapchat. It's hard to know. So, when I was on family leave, I was having Shane, who edits this podcast, put together a kind of a weekly like, "Hey, here's what happened on Twitter" and in the Facebook groups and what Facebook is saying publicly on a whole bunch of stuff related to ads, directly for direct to consumer businesses and advertisers.

So, we just started putting it in a newsletter and yeah, we've been getting great feedback on it. And we have a really strong, about 900 people there and you can check it out, and sign up, we'd love to have you. But it's been really fun to put it all together in one place. But actually one of the people that I quoted in a recent newsletter is who is our guest today. Jesse Semchuck from Traeger Grills, the director of acquisition for Traeger Grills, just a wonderful guy that I have gotten to know on Twitter and I know you have as well. And I am excited to have him here.

Austin Brawner: I'm really excited. I am a pellet grill owner and I would consider myself somewhat of a smoking fanatic during this time of quarantine. That was kind of one of my big projects, ribs, chicken, all of those different things, it's been a lot of fun. And then I got deep in their retargeting funnel, and it's been interesting to see they're doing some really cool, cool stuff. And Jesse goes into a little bit of that and how he thinks also holistically about the marketing funnel. If you are running a business and are ready to kind of take it to the next level, like you've had a lot of success growing on Facebook and Instagram. I feel like this is a really good episode to give you a viewpoint into what's possible past paid social. So, let's bring him in.

Andrew Foxwell: Hey, Jesse, we're so glad to have you on the show. For those people that don't know who you are and your background. Can you give people a background of what you do at Traeger and also your experience previously at Purple Mattresses too? Because I think both of those things are really interesting,

Jesse Semchuck: Sure. At Traeger I'm the director of acquisition. So, I have pretty much anything digital, but my team's scope also goes into traditional channels, TV, radio, anything on the sort of prospecting side, podcast side. So, my team covers all of it. And then we work with a few different agencies. And before that I was at Purple Mattress where I was covering a lot of the programmatic efforts on Google. A lot of the SEO efforts, affiliates, and basically everything that wasn't paid social.

Andrew Foxwell: So, quite a bit of stuff.

Jesse Semchuck: Yeah. Yep. My team covers most marketing efforts at Traeger and we've been really excited to kind of build it out over the last year. When I started Traeger really wasn't doing a lot of digital marketing. We have a 30 minute infomercial that they'd run for a few years on broadcast TV. And after running the same infomercial for a few years, wouldn't you know it, it stopped working and they decided, "Well, we'd better jump into digital." And so, the difference being, it's been just really fun to sort of build that up from scratch and not have to step into a big mess left behind by someone else, not saying that was the case at Purple, but certainly companies before that, and build it out the right way without a lot of wastes in spend.

Austin Brawner: It's super interesting. I was telling you, before we hopped on that, I'm deep in your guys's retargeting funnel right now, just watching the different ways you approach it. It's really, really interesting. You've got YouTube, you've got all these different campaigns running, they kind of all hop into this holistic experience that you can learn more about Traeger. What has been something that you've learned about the difference between selling mattresses and selling smokers?

Jesse Semchuck: Well, the biggest thing is just selling smokers is not as broad of an audience. So, when we were selling mattresses, right? We could pretty much target a target based on age and maybe income. And you're probably going to have someone who probably sleeps on a mattress in the United States, right? Everyone sleeps. A large percentage of homes own a grill, but then to add the sort of layer of Traeger on top of it, we know that we want to target a higher HHI or household income because it's a higher price point than a traditional grill.

You can go buy a grill at a big box store for $200, a propane grill. A smoker or a pellet grill is really different in that it's sort of is more like a convection oven, like an outdoor oven, regulates your heat within the smoker through a computer controlled system that's connected to wifi, that's connected to the app. And so, it's more money, right? It's a thousand dollars on average for one of our grills. And we know that less people are going be qualified for that and if you're buying a Traeger, it's probably not your first grill, right? You probably already owned a lower price grill. And we have to qualify at the top of our funnel based on some variables like home ownership and income.

Austin Brawner: One thing just right out of the gates and I'm curious about, before we even get into more questions is, what are you excited about that's actually working well for Traeger right now?

Jesse Semchuck: Well, I think what's been interesting is when I came in, I had this mindset of sort of more of a DTC mindset, right? Having worked at Purple, I'm thinking, "Well, maybe we need 70 or 80% of our mix to be on the prospecting side for education." And what I've learned at Traeger is that it's just such an advantage to be in so many retail stores like Traeger's in Home Depot, ACE, Costco's, around the country we're in 10,000 stores. And so, having that base already built up before I stepped in, is just a massive advantage.

And so, working with our retail partners, working with... Like this morning, I was on a call with Home Depot's digital team and ACE Hardware's digital team this morning. And so, talking through with them and figuring out, "Okay, what is the holistic mix of marketing spend across all of these channels? And can I give some of these retail partners more money that works in a sort of hand in hand way with our digital spend." And so, what I found that's working really well, just to circle back to your question, is one prospecting based on qualifiers across as many channels as we can, but also really honing in and optimizing the channels and the full funnel of the more traditional digital channels like your Facebooks and Googles.

Austin Brawner: Could you give kind of a picture of maybe the size of your team and your, I think it's really good to give a perspective of how large your organization is, what your team looks like and how you manage all this. Because I feel like often lots of direct to consumer brands, they kind of get stuck, like you were mentioning maybe 70, 80% on prospecting and then the vast majority of that on paid social. And they're looking for this next level, what does your team look like? How do you manage that? And how do you pair that also with outside agencies?

Jesse Semchuck: So yeah, we have a couple of channels where there are certain things within a channel that we might not have the resources for. So, my team is myself and three others essentially, adding to that quickly. But so, I consider us to be a relatively small team based on the amount of spend we have. So, we're going to be adding to that, so we need to lean on our partners pretty heavily. So, we do lean on our partners within channel to help, certainly not on the ones where we feel like we need in house expertise, like your Facebook's or Google's, but there are channels that will help you run things. And as long as you have expertise in house that can say, "Look, we are going to require a viewability rate." Or, "We want this to be a non skippable data view." Or whatever it is for that channel I think you can kind of hold their feet to the fire and make sure they know that you're going to hold them accountable.

Andrew Foxwell: I think it's kind of that DTC thinking that you and I had talked about before of saying, "A lot of DTC brands only focus on only a couple of channels." And one thing you commented on was shifting into thinking about a holistic brand building plan where you're trying to scale spend on sometimes less trackable channels. I mean, how do you even begin to think about this, right? Like in terms of attribution, in terms of digital growth and contribution margin targets, stuff like that.

Jesse Semchuck: So for me, I always start with the numbers, I think a lot of brands that I talk to if I'm consulting, I mean, they're just straight running Facebook ads or running Google ads, or how are you thinking about this from a strategic point of view at a really high level? Are you building a marketing machine in any way? Right? Do you have a plan for repurchase? Do you have a plan for continued communication?

Do you have a product that can address that? Or add to AOV? Right. I'll take a lot of that thinking at a high level and start to drill into the numbers around, "Okay. What is the lowest contribution margin my business, my leadership is comfortable with, right? How do I gain trust with my leadership internally? And then how do I back into the channel plan, right?" We're on a lot of channels, but not as many as a company of our size maybe would be. And I think years ago, I often thought, "Well, digital marketing isn't one thing, it's everything." And I think as I've gotten a little bit older, realized I'm probably going to die early if I have that mindset. You really have to pick and choose your eight to 12 channels, right? That are really going to work for your brand and your customer and figure out how you're going to optimize those over time.

Andrew Foxwell: I think that's an absolutely incredible point that you have to pick and choose. And I see that consistently over time where people are overwhelmed because they're trying to do all channels and what that leads to is the inability to do any channel well. How do you guys think about your channels? When you started how did you think about adding new channels and what is your kind of mix of marketing channels look like with your relatively small team that you're talking about?

Jesse Semchuck: So, we think about things in terms of top, mid and bottom funnel. Basically we have a number of streaming channels that we run on the top of the funnel. So, when I think about prospecting, to me that's anyone who's never visited our website and never bought a product from us, never downloaded our app, we have no engagement with that customer.

We want to get in front of as many potential customers as possible, so we're looking for channels that can help us do that en masse without doing it across 20 different channels that too streaming video. So, we're certainly heavy on Amazon, and heavy on YouTube. And Hulu and Roku, we're actually advertising right now as well. And many of the traditional digital channels are also top of the funnel channels, like your Facebooks and what not.

Jesse Semchuck: So, I think about things in those three different sections of the funnel and then figure out, what is the right messaging throughout? How long do they need to be in the funnel? And work with our consumer insights team internally the whole time to figure out, who is this customer? Does this track? What are we hearing from our other partners outside to say, "Okay. Well, what we're seeing is that... "

Example being like Home Depot may tell us that, "Well, we know that a Traeger customer is interested in high-end appliances and outdoor gardening." Right? Am I advertising to those audiences? Do I have better audiences within Google that I can then disseminate throughout the other channels? So, for us really it starts with audience. And then what we think the kind of funnel is based on post-purchase survey data that we've collected over the last year.

Andrew Foxwell: So, a lot of it is attributable to that post-purchase survey data that you're then backing that in. Do you find that people are, I mean like discovery wise, I think people are always interested in a lot of the DTC companies have started starting with a Facebook and they're not even starting with a video view, they're going to start with conversion ads and they're not necessarily even thinking about something as top funnel as a video view. From a discovery standpoint, a smoker and a pellet grill it's something that requires, it requires a certain level of nerdery, is that a word? And somebody-

Jesse Semchuck: Sure.

Andrew Foxwell: ...really getting into the weeds to understand it and researching pros and cons of it. Where does that discovery take place? That you've found is it mostly on, is it on YouTube? Is it on Facebook? Is it on display or is it kind of in all of those places and you're then experimenting with things like Hulu, et cetera?

Jesse Semchuck: Yeah. It starts in kind of all of those places, quite honestly. And we have a system we fill that allows us to look at the roll up of the contribution margin across all of those channels. And for some channels, I expect little to no ROAS, right? But what I do expect out of a channel like a YouTube is I don't want to say, "No, ROAS." It's probably a bit of an exaggeration, but I do expect high view through rates, I expect low CPDs. There are different metrics that matter across these channels and I think that's where a lot of smaller companies get hung up, is that you might have an amazing view rate on a video that is contributing to the return on other channels on Facebook retargeting or whatever, but you might pause it because within the first week you didn't see an amazing return or similar returns.

You just have to learn that each of these channels is going to operate a little bit independently in terms of how they think about or what kind of data they're collecting. But also it's all holistic like I know that if I spend more to the right audience that we've identified at the top of the funnel, my retargeting is going to do better at the bottom of the funnel. It's just that simple. And I think most brands either they don't have the cash or they're not willing to outlay the time to really get at those learnings.

Austin Brawner: Yeah. I think that's a really good point. That is the thing that can hold people back, seemingly from taking the next step, is being able to look at it a little bit more holistically and understand, like you said, "Yeah, there may be a video that people watch that really is a convincing video explaining what a Traeger is that leads to a purchase later on. But if that's not getting realized, people might turn it off, even though that's a huge part of the process." I think about breaking down how people think about selling different products because there's in one case a lot of people out there that are preaching one method to sell something when everything is dependent on your product. And I think about, I have a pellet smoker and I went through the whole process of learning about it, it takes a long time to figure out, to make sure is this the right one for you?

All of these different questions and ultimately I think mattresses are similar in the sense that you need to do a little bit of research to be able to figure out what you want. When you're looking at selling a pellet smoker and you compare that to somebody who's got a product that is a lot more simple. How does somebody determine when's the right time to invest in a full funnel holistic view versus just push on a few levers? I think that's an interesting question that I don't know the answer to.

Jesse Semchuck: I think if you have the... Like for us, it's a pretty simple decision, right? Because we're in so many retail stores and our big push for the year is brand awareness, right? And pellet grill awareness just generally, most people have probably walked by a Traeger and thought it was just a regular grill, right? So, for us, it's an easy decision. I think for most companies though, obviously start digging the cash register and then as those, if you're doing well from a ROAS perspective, start investing in the top of the funnel, because once you start results at the lower end of things, Facebook retargeting or whatever, you're going to be able to identify who those audiences are through Google

Go look at your conversion pixel data within Google, it'll tell you based on the snapshot of the timeframe you're looking at, who that customer is, are they interested in traveling? Are they a business news reader? Who is that? Start to identify these profiles and then go out and invest in the top of the funnel but not until you have some data over the course of probably three, six months worth of learnings to start to formulate those profiles.

Andrew Foxwell: Yeah. That makes me think of that one strategy from Ryan Kovach, who is a Facebook advertiser, digital advertiser, a friend of the pod. He always would recommend going and looking in your Google in market segments, and then taking those broad, like you said, fast food buyers or whatever and then targeting like fast food as an interest and putting a bunch of those really big ones in a campaign budget optimization campaign on Facebook and targeting those and seeing what happens as a way to scale.

Jesse Semchuck: We do the exact same thing. I mean, we test through all those in market segments, test them out on YouTube and then trickle those down into Facebook.

Andrew Foxwell: It makes sense, right? And I think that there's, to some degree, going broad in terms of targeting is helpful, like broad in terms of a big category like that, but also having more specific lookalikes and stuff is a good thing to add to the mix. One thing I want to shift into talking about with you because I know that you have worked with a lot of agencies and I think that DTC brands, there's just a lot of, it depends, there's a lot of agencies that say certain things. And then there are DTC brands that are confused about how to work with an agency or how to start to get into it. I think you were quoted in saying previously, "That just needing help is not a reason for hiring an agency and you shouldn't hire an agency if they're not going to help with your longterm business goal."

Andrew Foxwell: And you went through and outlined saying, "Before reaching out to an agency, asking, understanding, what's your actual goal as a company? How's that agency going to actually help you in the next one to two years? What matters to your brand and leadership? So you can tell the agency and then are you looking for a deal as the brand? Are you trying to go into this thinking about numbers out of the gate?"

Jesse Semchuck: Yeah.

Andrew Foxwell: How do you, I mean, I'd be curious to hear your comments on those things and then, how do people start to think about agency partnerships and where do people go astray?

Jesse Semchuck: Right. You nailed it in my quote. I'm very guilty of this. When I was earlier in my career, right? I think when you work for a brand, you often want to come in and look like you're saving the company money by busting an agency down on price.

Only waiting to hire them until you have something you need to dump off your plate, right? And it's just the complete opposite, backward way to look at it. And I think now that I've worked with so many agencies, I realized that the results are just never there. You're going to get what you pay for. So, I'm not saying you should overspend as a brand, but you should really be thinking about this in terms of, even if it's a six-month contract, I like to think about it in terms of at least a year. Like what can they help me with over the course of the year?

And does it align with the overall goals for your company? Most of the time I hear people like, "Oh, I got to hire an agency I'm so busy." It's just so wrong, right? Go hire a person to help you with that because it's going to be cheaper than an agency anyway, hire an agency for partnership, right? If you're at a brand and you don't have access to reps, right? You don't have access to Facebook or Google reps an agency might be a great way for you to get access. But think about them in terms of like as a team member, as a partner. Most of the time when I'm on with our agencies and partners, I'm not sitting there waiting for them to tell me about performance because they probably already sent it in an email, I'm updating them on what's happening in our business, right? So they can do a better job. And I think so many agencies, I mean, you guys know you're probably flying blind with some clients because you just don't know what's going on or you get blindsided with some big change they made. So, I like to work in terms of full trust.

Andrew Foxwell: Just to comment on that. One thing that I would really love Austin to comment on is the DNA of the relationship with an agency that you just said, right? Don't depend on them to be your leader, like hire someone that's going to be in between that's a more powerful hire. I learned that from Austin. That was something I sort of used to go like, "Oh, just go hire an agency." But actually having someone who's internal, that's managing that. I mean, I realize that that costs more money but that person can hold a lot of different hats. But that's going to be a more strategic investment, in my opinion. Even if you're trying to, let's say, get that person over time to do the work, you want them to be the one pulling the levers, having them manage it first is going to be the best learning that they can do. And again, Austin, you're really the one that taught me thinking in that way.

Austin Brawner: A lot of what you're talking about longterm partnership is a hundred percent the way to think about it. And it's challenging to try to figure out, especially when you're overwhelmed, what the right decision is. How do you guys structure your hybrid, like your team, so that you're not the one always connected with agencies? How do you think about that interaction? And how does your teamwork with an agency specifically, maybe your team members connecting with them?

Jesse Semchuck: I like to do weekly calls to start and then over time, you scale that back to maybe no calls, maybe just a QBR or something and you can communicate over email once trust is there. But I think it's important early for me and other people to be on the calls with agencies, just so they know who the stakeholders are internally. But typically my team can handle any question that a partner might throw at them. So, I hire for that. Like I'm not looking to hire super junior level marketers to manage agencies, right? If they're not able to come into a call with an agency or with a partner and understand the scope of what's going on, then I need to be there too until they are, right? Until they get turned up. So, luckily my team is unbelievable. They're fantastic and I don't even need to be around most of the time they're so good.

Austin Brawner: How do you guys, how do you guys operate? Is it remote? Is it in-house? Is it a hybrid of both? Obviously right now, most people have been remote but-

Jesse Semchuck: Yeah, we're all remote.

Austin Brawner: ...a typical time. Everyone's remote.

Jesse Semchuck: Well just right now we are, I'm in Salt Lake City and so our team is also here in Utah. And so really, I mean, I want to hire the best marketers I can to come and work for Traeger and I would certainly be open to hiring a remote marketer, but right now everyone is in-house and in the same location, other than we're all working from home through the summer.

Andrew Foxwell: The one thing that you went through, Jesse of kind of thinking about getting set up with an agency relationship, I think this is one thing that people sometimes don't know what to ask. And we get, at Foxwell digital, we get asked many times like, "Hey, what do you think of this agency?" You said things like, where does a brand... This is things you could ask a potential agency. Where does a brand of your size fit within their roster of clients? What will they deliver each week? And for the entire term of the contract, how many clients is your agency rep managing? Are they, yes-men? What do they think of their goals? These are some of the things that you bring up. What are other things, or commenting on those, that you feel are imperative to ask a potential agency that you're trying to partner with?

Jesse Semchuck: I think also if they do creative in-house, getting a look at some of the creative from clients they're currently running is a good thing, particularly on the Facebook ad side. But I mean, most of those, the biggest one for me has just been, where do we sit within the landscape of your current clients? Because having worked at bigger brands, I think often I've seen agencies really want to take on a Traeger or a Purple, right? Because they want to put that logo on their homepage, but you're not actually, they might take a rate reduction to do that or to be affiliated, but over time that doesn't always work well for the brand. And I would almost rather overpay for unbelievable agency talent than to work with someone I'm getting a deal with. And so again, it goes back to what do I think his agency's going to bring to our digital team or our company within a year's time. And that better be a good multiplier for me to be able to sell it internally.

Austin Brawner: Of your experience working with different types of agencies, are there any specific types of agencies that you find are more successful, have been more successful to outsource various parts of the business or channels that you like to keep in-house just for specific reasons or from your experience?

Jesse Semchuck: Sure. We have a pretty big creative team at Traeger, but I think as your spend levels increase the need for different kinds of assets or asset testing increases. And so, that can be a place where an agency can help. I also think that when you're in the initial setup phase of things to save time, like if you didn't have a shopping feed at all, right? Maybe an agency could help with that. And there are just certain things that you're going to find better expertise in different cities. Right now I think we have a pretty strong programmatic knowledge base that Traeger. But I think as your spend levels increase it's harder to find people who are experts at programmatic display and video within your local city, right? So, you might have to take that out to an agency. So, depending on spend and I have certain spend levels in my head, but like for most companies listening to this, I think really just try to hire experts locally is the biggest thing.

Austin Brawner: Yeah. I agree with you. I think that if you can find people, initially as you start to build out a team, I don't know how you feel about this, but I think that as your budget starts getting increasingly bigger, hiring someone that is a standalone individual sometimes can be helpful to start to just be that little like puzzle piece there that adds on, or like that little addition that adds on. And then over time building into a bigger agency that can do more. I love the conversation that we had too about agency red flags that you had like, "Hey, if they're doing any of these things, this is a problem." Which I think is important to go through. Like they drop off the face of the earth, frequent account manager switch ups, lack of transparency, not asking enough questions, not bringing new strategies. I think those are some huge ones that are big red flags that people go through.

As we kind of wrap up, Jesse, thinking about you're someone that observes closely the direct to consumer space of brands that are smaller and brands like Traeger that are bigger. What are some final things that you want to impart? Or we could call this Jesse's beefs, things you want to bring up that it just bothers you, that you see happening in a conversation around DTC that you just want to call out and have a conversation about.

Jesse Semchuck: I think generally you see a lot of DTC people on Twitter, they'll post their screenshot with no context. That's the number one thing that bothers me.

Austin Brawner: That's a good one.

Jesse Semchuck: I look at a screenshot and I'm like, "I have 500 questions about this. I can't trust them." That's super annoying. I think also just working with partners on the display and programmatic side, when I talked to either I'm consulting with someone or I talked to other brands and they don't know what their attribution windows are or what their viewability rates are or how many people are viewing their videos and they just don't have a sense for their own analytics. Just the ROAS number that is like hugely annoying to me. If they don't know how many new people are actually viewing their content every month. And so, it's often this mindset of squeezing lemons not planting lemon trees, right?

Andrew Foxwell: Right, right. Yeah. Well, I always think of it too, like what you said, I mean their lack of detail is a glaring... Their lack of awareness of the details is a glaring thing of like, "How do you not know that about your own thing?"

Jesse Semchuck: Right.

Austin Brawner: Yeah. I completely agree with you. Well, Jesse, it's been great to have you on the show. If people have further questions is Twitter the best way to get ahold of you? And if so, what's your Twitter handle?

Jesse Semchuck: Sure. You can find me on Twitter at Jessie. J-E-S-S-E-S-E-M.

Austin Brawner: Cool. Cool. Well, thank you very much for joining us, man.

Jesse Semchuck: Thanks for having me.

Andrew Foxwell: Jesse, thank you so much.

Austin Brawner: What's up everybody. Welcome back to another episode of the Ecommerce Influence Podcast. My name is Austin Brawner.

Andrew Foxwell: And I'm Andrew Foxwell. I tell you, Austin, I have been absolutely loving your emails lately. You have hit a stride. They are so helpful. I'm not just blowin...

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