How Warby Parker Earned Word-of-Mouth By Using Storytelling

Visakan Veerasamy
Visakan Veerasamy
January 13, 2015
2 min read
How Warby Parker Earned Word-of-Mouth By Using Storytelling

In this article

When we were going through Harley Finkelstein's talk about the modern marketing tactics used by Shopify retailers, we couldn't help but notice that Warby Parker gave a talk at the same event. And so we watched and transcribed that too.

This talk is by Tim Riley, who heads up the online experience at Warby Parker. His job is to make the process of buying glasses online as fun and easy as possible. Here's the 20-minute video:

Here are our takeaways– (AKA how to do great marketing like Warby Parker):

  1. Make Me Care: Start by putting together a fundamentally great story. Warby Parker got tremendous word-of-mouth from the get-go because their story resonated with the press, who were eager to tell their readers about it. This should work for all brands, but it should be especially powerful for lifestyle brands. (Read: It was a dark and stormy night… – 11 Examples of Storytelling in Marketing)
  2. Understand your brand hierarchy– What's most critical? Warby Parker lays out its brand in a linear fashion: Lifestyle brand -> Value and Service -> Social Mission. Rather than trying to do everything at once, they focused on the most important fundamentals that would enable them to do what they really wanted to do. (Read: 30 Tips To Build Your Personal Brand From 37 Experts [Infographic])
  3. Steal the show! Get your early buzz + influencer buy-in by being tastefully rebellious. Warby Parker wanted to be a part of NY Fashion Week in Fall 2011, but couldn't afford to get involved the traditional way- so they invited 40+ editors to a 'secret event' at the NY Public Library. They earned buzz (without paying for it!) by creating a remarkable experience. (Read: Guerrilla Marketing Tactics Every Startup Should Know: 8 Case Studies and Examples)
  4. If It Ain't Fun, Why Do It? Create content that's legitimately fun. Warby Parker's annual reports include things like what bagels they ate, or what were the most popular misspellings of the brand. In 2012, this led to their 3 highest consecutive sales days of the year. (Warby Barker became a standalone April Fool's site, which got 2.5x the traffic of the actual site.) If you're not enjoying your own content, why would anybody else?
  5. Figure out ways to turn mundane interactions with your brand into remarkable, social ones. Warby Parker's team responded to questions on Twitter with quickly-shot YouTube videos, which average 120 views per video. They also provided a make-a-snowman kit with their gift cards, and added a #WarbySnowman hashtag– turning it into a fun, remarkable experience. (Read: 17 Ways That 15 Companies Got Massive Word-of-Mouth By Delighting Their Customers)
  6. Better Together: Partnerships make tonnes of sense for lifestyle brands. Warby Parker does partnerships with all sorts of other brands and entities. Ghostly International (music label), Man Of Steel movie (Clarke Kent as the original do-gooder and most famous glasses-wearer),, (in line with social mission, $30 gift card allows customers to get more directly involved with projects). (Read: Examples Of Collaboration In Ecommerce – Win-Wins For Everybody)
  7. Create unique, memorable physical experiences. Warby Parker makes very interesting decisions: The flagship store looks like a library, and the eye exams are done with old-school railroad flipping things. When they wanted to do mobile showcases, they used bicycles, and then a repurposed schoolbus. Their first showcase had a Yurt in it. Every time they had a chance, they chose to do something unorthodox.

Bonus: We've put together an extensive guide to help you break through your next revenue target. Check it out here.

Here's our transcript + screenshots:

"Hey guys, I'm Tim, I'm from Warby Parker. I try to make the process of buying glasses online as fun and easy as possible. Today I'm going to talk about the brand origin, narrative, how that story came about, how it came into focus. How we grow the brand by doing things that people want to talk about.

The brand started with a personal pain point of the founders– one lost a pair of $700 glasses.

Four guys when they went to Wharton school- that’s where they met- right before one of the founders got there, he lost a $700 pair of glasses.

They talked about their pain stories– glasses shouldn’t cost as much as an iPhone! Other things were being sold online- diapers, shoes, contact lenses, etc. Glasses could probably be sold online too.

Think about how glasses are historically sold. You could buy an eyewear only brand, or a fashion brand (Chanel, DKNY, Polo). You probably do it at an eye retailer. Vision insurance company (EyeMed).


What do they all have in common? They’re owned by the same company- Luxxotica.

That’s where the Warby Parker story came from- what if we could sell to consumers directly online, at a fraction of the price by cutting out the middleman. And also do good, distribute an additional pair to someone in need. Hopefully transfer billions of dollars away from these multi-nationals to people like you and myself. Grow a brand, profitable, could scale, do good in the world.

This is Warby Parker's brand hierarchy:

You have to do 01 and 02 before you can do 03.

A Lifestyle Brand offering Value and Service with a Social Mission. It’s not that the social mission is less important- it’s that you have to do the first things in the list before the last one can come true. If people don’t buy into your lifestyle brand, you can't do all the fun stuff.

Everyone raised their hands that it was a good idea- so did GQ and Vogue. GQ called it the Netflix of Eyewear. After the first 3 weeks, hit first year of sales targets. Sold out top 15 styles in 4 weeks and amassed a waiting list of 20,000 customers because they were out of inventory.

This story, this narrative really caught on, and a lot of other people liked talking about it as well. All right in the beginning, just the first couple of months.

Really what I’m illustrating here- why Warby Parker has been so successful, especially at the beginning- a lot of the success comes around telling good storytelling. Storytelling is the oldest form of human communications, its how we relate to one another.

Warby Parker operates in a bunch of different worlds. In fashion, in social enterprise, in retail, in tech. Sometimes- especially in the tech world- we forget that we should be telling stories to our customers and trying to relate to people.

Often times, the biggest difference between two products that do the same thing is the story that it tells, and how people relate to it.

Now- a few examples of how we did a bunch of different things along the way.

1: Cleverly hijacking NY Fashion Week in Fall 2011 with a 'hush mob'

Genius guerilla 'hush-mob' in New York Public Library.

Fall 2011- we wanted to be a part of the fashion scene in New York. The biggest way to do that is to participate in NY fashion week. To do that you can do runway shows or a presentation.

We didn’t have the resources to do either at scale, so we decided to hold our own secret presentation the day before NY fashion week started. We found this great space- New York Public Library- staked out this reading room- the last two tables, had our own employees sitting there all day, hoarding out that process.

Invited about 40 editors to meet us in front of the NY Public Library- not to tell anyone what you’re doing there or why you’re going (hadn’t asked library’s permission to do this)- meanwhile we had 20-30 models in the hotel next door getting ready, getting done up. At 330 we invited everyone in- and everyone who was saving the seats got up and left, and the models were carrying these bright blue books, and they opened up the books and started reading (or pretending to read- I couldn’t verify).

All the editors were going around snapping pictures, running up, taking notes, looking at the glasses. Security at the library were kinda running around trying to understand what was going on, but everyone was just reading so it was business as usual. So it was a success- everyone’s launching fashion week, and every editor that was there wrote about us, how Warby Parker did this guerrilla hush mob and stole the thunder from Fashion Week.

2: Fun annual report led to 3 highest consecutive sales days of the year

Those two spikes in traffic? Features on New York Times, and on CBS Good Morning.

Try to share as much information as you can- annual report- featured in NYT, CBS sunday morning. We thought it would be fun to put together a report that didn’t talk about what financials, but what glasses were popular in what state, what bagels we ate- we put it out in Jan 2012, as a thank you to our customers- hey, this is how far we’ve come, and it’s because of you, thank you so much. Got passed around the internet like crazy- it led to our 3 highest consecutive sales days in our company history at the time- opened the door to lots more customers caring about us.

This slide has some traffic about how people coming from different devices- most common/popular misspelled keywords searchers.

3: April Fools! Warby Barker had 2.5 times the traffic Warby Parker did.

Warby Barker April Fool's is still live.

We should do an April Fools project on this- sell glasses for dogs- for the next two weeks we had Warby Barker, photoshoot with professional dog models, professional dog models are incredibly talented and sophisticated, much better than human models. They’ll do anything you ask them to do, they won’t bark back, etc.

First three days in April, Warby Barker has 2.5 times the traffic Warby Parker had. How many times are you exposed to a brand that sells eyewear- or any brand for that matter, through an April Fools joke?

4: Replying to Twitter questions with YouTube Videos: Averages 120 views with 2,000+ videos in 18 months

Going the extra mile in responding to tweets.


How do you give an answer on Twitter- how do glasses look- in less than 140 characters?

One quick idea- shoot them a video, open up a mac, open up Photo Booth, 20 seconds, upload to youtube, put it in a tweet and send it back to the person. This person is going to watch it and get stoked about it and there’ll be a really great experience, 1-1.

We didn’t expect people were going to share with their friends. Each video has about 120 views (per tweet response). Now we’re creating something that lives on- second largest search engine in the world (YouTube). 2,000+ videos in 18 months.

5: #WarbyHomeTryon – Those who try at home are 50% likelier to buy. Hashtag increased shares by 40%.

People who try are 50% likelier to buy.


You can try 5 frames at home- when customers post photos of them trying on, we’d give them style advice- these customers who were posting would convert and purchase 50% more on average.

When we do our box, let’s put a hashtag in there, have them share a little more. 40% increase in the last month of people sharing their photos online asking for style advice. Pretty impactful.

6: #WarbySnowman  – fun gift cards worth talking about, makes for fun social experience

Even the UPS guy got involved. And the dog.

How can you make something that normally wouldn’t get talked about, talked about? Holiday season, gift cards- people want to share with friends and family. Boring to just give a gift card- so there’s a make a snowman kit in addition to the gift card.

Fake white chocolate, fake pieces of coal, 3 buttons and a pipe cleaner. We included a hashtag on it #warbysnowman. Dog and UPS guy got in on the action.

Example where you took something like a gift card that was normally not talked about- something for people to experience your brand with.

7: Partnerships – Man of Steel movie, set sold out in a week

Warby Parker Man Of Steel
Sold out in a week.

For us it made sense. Huge movie, would expose us to a very large audience, felt true and on-brand to us. Clarke Kent is the most iconic glasses wearer of all time, the original do-gooder… I’m even sporting the man of steel frames on my face.

We put this out here, got a ton of press, sold the whole entire set in a week.

But not every partnership has to be super huge- Ghostly international partnership, online music label been around for 15 years, based in NYC. If you’re a lifestyle brand, music is a big part of that lifestyle. We put this online- just one pair of sunglasses, launched it last summer, sold out in 24 hrs. Wasn’t the biggest collaboration with the biggest audience, but something that really made sense for both our customer bases.

Partnership with pencils of promise- DonorsChoose:


Great organization, ties in with our social mission- for every glasses that you bought, you got a $30 gift card for DonorsChoose, let you get to pick a project to support.

Warby Parker x Beck's Song Reader:


Beck came out with this project called the Song Reader- instead of releasing an album, released an album full of sheet music. Up to the fans to play it yourselves, make your own version of it, we’ll pick a winner and fly you out so you can watch Beck perform in person. Everything from 8 bit version to folk and hardcore death metal versions and electro pop dance mix. That version is mine- If you google 'Warby Parker Beck Tim Riley’ you can watch me and my version there. (Here it is!)

Going back real quickly to what we were talking about earlier- all that inventory.

8: Progression of physical experiences by Warby Parker:

Reportedly Neil's Kitchen Display
Reportedly Neil's Kitchen Display

Customers called and said hey, I notice you’ve sold out all your frames online, can I come to your office and try some of them on? Founders said sure, you can came to our office, but it’s not an office, it’s my apartment- and the glasses are laid out on the kitchen table, and just ask for Neil when you get to the doorman- not thinking anyone was really going to come, but people did start showing up. And this was another chance to connect, tell your brand story, talk to your customers, understand what they’re talking.

Can’t stress enough about talking and meeting with your customers.

Took part of our office and made it into a showroom. Over time it grew and grew to the point where on a weekend day we had a thousand people coming to an unmarked 5th floor loft just to shop for glasses. This pissed off all the other residents in the building- since there was a single elevator which opened up to the floor- they complained to the landlord, who threatened to evict us every other week.

So we thought we could do something grander, let’s try a pop-up for six weeks in Soho, go the number one yurt company in the countries to make us yurts.


Then tried taking it on the road- using bikes (a little less scalable)- bought a school bus, ripped out the insides, called it the Warby Parker class trip, meet customers from all over the land.

Warby Parker Schoolbus
Class Trip with Warby Parker

If that wasn’t enough, maybe partner with seaplanes- StndAIR took people on the Hudson river- everyone who took a ride got a free pair of Warby Parker glasses. We iterated each time we did one of these ventures.

First retail store, flagship in Soho– no detail unthought of:

Warby Parker's Flagship Store

Resembles a giant library- beautiful reading lamps, no detail goes unthought of. Eye Exam boards that replicates those old school train station boards that does the fluttering- putt. Where the four founders went to school. Digital version, audio recording on the piped sound- from the train station.

New store launching at Upper East Side- delivers your glasses via pneumatic tube from basement to first and second floors. That’s basically everything that we have growing the brand for the past 4 years, hope you liked it.

Questions from the audience:

Q: You guys do everything great- how do you minimize mistakes that happen in anything that you’re doing?

Start really really small. The Twitter videos could’ve bombed, so we tried- one thing is you don’t ask for permission. I just told someone on my team let’s just try it for two days- if it bombs in two days, cool, move on to the next thing (rather than work on something for months and months, tonnes of resources, you’re on the hook to keep going, making it worse…) very very small bets.

Even from a product perspective- glasses that I’m wearing- first time using a new material in the glasses- limited collection- just wanted to see if we could do it from a manufacturing perspective. 6 months later, do it on a much larger scale. When things fail, they fail quietly.

Q: How do you prioritize/manage the innovation ideas?

A: Not all are good- once we got “a couch”. They go directly to the manager or person-in-charge of the department- they can put it in their backlog of things they should be working- sometimes they’re things already being worked on, but maybe not always 100% communicated across departments, so it’s good knowledge-sharing to keep people updated.

So it doesn’t need to grand ideas- pneumatic tube is kinda big- but most are small and implementable. If you did 1 a week that keeps you busy all year."


If you liked this, you'd also enjoy these 25 fantastic fashion industry marketing strategies.

Bonus: We've put together an extensive guide to help you break through your next revenue target. Check it out here.


Visakan Veerasamy
Visakan Veerasamy

Visa is ReferralCandy's former Blog Editor [2013–2018]. He also co-founded, a fashion ecommerce label selling witty t-shirts. He's mildly Internet-famous for his elaborate Twitter threads. He hopes to enjoy a glass of scotch onboard a commercial space flight someday.

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