Reverb’s Secret to Dominating a New Category (Hint: Content Marketing)

Justin DeLay is the Director of Category and Product Marketing at Reverb, a global online marketplace for new, used, and vintage music gear.

Read on for a transcript of his presentation from our April 16, 2019 Here’s How Startup Marketing Conference, where he talks through how Reverb used to content marketing to make themselves an instant leader in a new category.

Hi, my name is Justin DeLay. Thanks for having me here. Like Josh said, I'm the Director of Category and Product Marketing at Reverb. Just to kind of level-set, does anybody here know what Reverb is? [Many hands raised.] Cool.

Does anybody play music on a guitar or synthesizer?[Many hands raised.]Alright. Awesome. So then some of the topics I'll cover here may be directly relevant to you.

But overall, what I'd love to do is talk through how we have used content marketing to build our brand, to drive awareness, and to reach new audiences. And within the world of content marketing, how we've learned to customize, specialize, and really shape our content for the specific audience that we're trying to reach.

To dive right in about Reverb, we are the world's largest music gear marketplace. We're trying to do about half a billion dollars in sales this year. We're kind of like eBay but just for music gear.

We've got about 10 million monthly visitors from all over the world with offices in Amsterdam, Australia, Japan, et cetera. People love music gear all over the world. It's a truly unifying experience, and that's a really cool part of what we do.

At the end of last year we were named one of the most innovative music companies by Fortune. [Editor's note: This was misstated in the video. Reverb was named a 2019 Most Innovative Music Company by Fast Company.] So we're really excited about our growth, our opportunity.

About me, I have been a lifelong musician – more of a hobbyist, bedroom-type. I play in a band here in Chicago called Replicant. If anybody gets that specific reference to Blade Runner, kudos to you. You are a sci-fi nerd.

Before I joined Reverb, I co-founded a company here in Chicago called TempoIQ. We were an Internet of things analytics platform. A fairly a big jump from Internet of things analytics to the world of music gear, but here I am.

I joined Reverb in 2016, as Josh said, to lead our growth beyond the world of guitar.


The situation is that our CEO, David Kalt, launched Reverb in 2013. And it was really based on his frustrations running Chicago Music Exchange, which again – for the musicians in the crowd – you may have seen, one of the world's greatest guitar stores.

He really bumped up against the physical limits of what you can do in a retail operation and then started to look for opportunities online. He quickly discovered that eBay, Amazon, et cetera, are not tailored to the needs of the musician, not tailored to the needs of the market, and saw an opportunity to launch Reverb.

We went out first and established ourselves as experts in the world of guitar, primarily through content marketing. And what I mean by that is a really awesome guitar player on camera showing you how to play the guitar solos of The Beatles. Really very SEO-focused.

Really trying to find those content opportunities that really indicate that someone is a high-end guitar buyer, which is the biggest segment of the market, or the most valuable segment of the market to start with.

So really started at a vintage guitar segment and really played to them, showing them high-end instruments, showing them how to play the music of their youth, et cetera. And it worked really, really well.

However, as we look at where music is today and where it's headed, most of the growth in music is in the world of electronic music. So, EDM on one extreme, if that's your bag.

But not just kind of the “unst-unst” kind of music, but if you look across, really, the musical spectrum – more and more and more – even artists you might not think are really using computers and more music technology.

When they're up on stage playing live, there's probably a laptop in the back controlling the lights and all that. The growth in our market is really coming from the slow progression of technology into the world of music and musical instruments.

And so we really needed a strategy to take a brand that was just bulls-eye, laser-focused on vintage guitar, Tom Petty, Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and make it relevant to Skrillex, Zedd, Stranger Things, et cetera.

Well, we did it through content marketing, and I think – again, I think this is where you hear us say, "Content marketing, oh, do content marketing! Make videos." The nuance is really where I think the magic occurs.


1. Studied current buyers and broader electronic instrument market

The first thing we did is just took a step back and said, "Who's actually buying this stuff? Who are they?" I have a lot of hypotheses. And it's really easy to think you can close your eyes and imagine it is that artist with a room full of all this gear.

But when we really looked at data – and I'll say this over and over again – as much as content marketing is a creative pursuit, I think one of the biggest learnings and takeaways for us is that the more it can be data-driven, the more predictable the outcome can be.

In the world of content marketing, where you're sort of often crossing your fingers – “I hope this video catches fire” – the more it can be informed by who you're explicitly trying to talk to and what that call of action is you're trying to get from them, the more effective it can be.

So I took a look at Reverb. Anybody can list anything for sale. We already had a lot of this kind of gear or these instruments on our platform. We just had never really reached out to that audience, and what it turns out is they're actually beginners.

It's not the high-end person. It's the opposite. It's the person who's just now starting. They might already play guitar, and they want to try this new thing.

That gave us a real opportunity to change our content strategy to actually, instead of speaking to the high-end expert segment of the guitar market, we actually talk to the beginner segment of the electronic instrument market, which from a brand perspective was a big, big change. Our whole identity was, "We are the experts."

2. Took the beginner / crossover perspective, recognized that the category is COMPLICATED

First, we had to really recognize and realize and internalize that we're talking to newbies.

And when you take that– either a true beginner or I play guitar and I'm gonna try this new thing – the first thing you realize is that this stuff is really, really, really complicated.

I won't go into the details of it, but a guitar is couple of strings, couple of knobs – that's pretty much it. It's been the same thing for about 50 years.

A keyboard, the computer – there's 50 knobs and they all do crazy stuff. It's a lot more technical and heady. So even for more advanced folks, it still can be very, very complicated.

3. Grounded content strategy in learning, segmented between mainstream “Synth Sounds” and deeper “Intro to Synthesis”

We really saw this opportunity to just ground our content strategy 100 percent in learning and just starting every piece of content with, "Okay, I know you're not an expert. Neither am I. Let's learn something together," and really framing everything around learning.

But then a little further into that, we were able to segment. We segmented our audience even further between folks who maybe have seen Stranger Things and heard that soundtrack and was like, "Woah, that's a cool sound. What is that?"

And really focused more of our mainstream content on recreating the sounds you've heard before, which is always a great touch point.

To zoom out for a second, from a content marketing perspective, we are often trying to leverage the brand or the awareness of a famous artist – or a really buzzy TV show in this situation. And it's a little more dangerous to lean in and say, "I'm gonna teach you how to make the sounds from Stranger Things."

But if you do it well, the audience is a lot bigger than what we would get just focused on our own segment. So segmented between more mainstream kind of get the sounds of things you've heard before, and then much deeper into, “Okay, let's super nerd-out on this stuff and spend 20 minutes on one little topic."

And that segmentation then really created a content funnel. And you've got someone who, again, sounds of Stranger Things. They land. They see the video. We did a lot of work to then link to and connect, go deeper, learn a little bit more.

4. Created Conversion CTA with downloadable supporting content

And to me, the two most important things that we did, and it's always obvious in retrospect: first, creating an actual call to action, something they could actually do other than just watching your video. Watching your video is really, really important. Subscribing to your channel is really, really important. But what else can they do?

We really focused on, “What can we give them? What's the takeaway here that goes beyond their experience with this video?”

And in the specifics of our world, we created a lot of free downloads where if you wanted to go even deeper into this content. You could download the thing, open it up, learn more, and that acted as that point of conversion.

We could see that traffic coming from YouTube to our site: signing up, downloading the thing, and kicking them into an automated marketing journey. We were talking about marketing automation earlier. Excellent trigger to put somebody into a journey like that.

5. Welcomed community into the discussion

And then finally, it's been a really good learning for me as the star of much of this content. It's rough out there in the world of making personality or influence or marketing. And especially with music because it's so subjective.

It's so much about your taste versus someone else's. Framing the conversation appropriately for your community can make or break the success of your strategy. What do I mean by that?

First, when we were going out and I was saying, "Today I'm gonna teach you all about something," and really positioned ourselves as experts.

You look at those YouTube comments and everybody's coming after you because you've opened yourself up to them. You said, "I know everything. Sling some arrows at me.”

Even just a subtle tweak over time of starting a piece of content by saying, "Now, I'm no expert. Today we're gonna learn together, and please, by all means, comment if you've got a different opinion," or, "I can't cover everything, so add more detail." Over time, what we've seen is that actually works.

It actually kind of restored my faith in humanity a little bit, to tell you the truth, because you know, that troll stuff, that's real.

And any brand – forget about music for a second – any brand, if you put content out there and it's got a comment box on it, you should expect that someone is going to have something to say about what you're doing.

More often than not, it may be a little bit more on the negative side. But, again, by repositioning our brand as, “We're beginners just like you. We're explorers just like you. Help us explore,” what we've seen is folks actually coming on, adding in additional detail, asking questions of other community members. This is on YouTube.

It's rare these days – from my perspective – it was rare these days to find a meaningful conversation in the comments section of YouTube. But it happens, it works, and it becomes kind of a self-sustaining cycle.

From an SEO perspective, that kind of rich content on your comments section pushes that video up.

When it comes back down into the dollars and cents of it – incorporating our community into that content experience – it's just a great performance opportunity.


We've been at this for about three years. We've done five million direct views. Many, many millions more indirect impressions and earned media impressions.

We make a lot of content. We cover all aspects of the musical instrument world. 28 of our top 200 videos are now about electronic instruments.

Our synth category – our actual sales volume – is up 250 percent, which is the fastest-growing category. I was named music tech personality of the year by Music Radar, which is really exciting. But, again, just earned media.

We've now taken that learning content strategy, mapped it across all of our instruments and actually seen similar results, which again, challenged our preconceived notion of who we were talking to even in the world of guitar.

Because it turns out that in the world of music, we're all beginners. You can pin down any musician, famous or not, and they'll tell you at the end of the day, they're still learning.

And so prototyping within one audience allowed us to really pull those best practices out and deploy them against our core audience.

*Correction: Reverb was named a 2019 Most Innovative Music Company by Fast Company.