Community has always been at the heart of XO Marshmallow, a company that creates handcrafted gourmet marshmallows that come in unique flavors and playful packaging. Before the idea was a full-fledged business, co-founders Kat Connor and Lindzi Shanks sold their marshmallows across bustling farmers’ markets and pop-up shops in Chicago. This initial community of customers pushed them to think bigger, and in 2016, they made the move from in-person to internet by launching a Shopify online store to sell their exclusive marshmallow offerings—from bourbon and salted caramel flavored puffs to s’mores kits and marshmallow cookie dough cones.
In 2017, they followed suit with a quaint brick-and-mortar marshmallow cafe and wonderland on Sheridan Road in Chicago. On opening day, their community of local foodies greeted them with a line that went down the block and around the corner.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Kat and Lindzi to close their cafe doors in 2020, they shifted their sales focus entirely to their online store. Amidst uncertainty, they focused on building the thing that had been so important to their business all along: community. Affectionately termed “Troop XO,” their online community now includes thousands of followers across social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, where members share and recommend their products, provide feedback on forthcoming marshmallow flavors, and support the business through thick and thin.
“Our community has always been extremely supportive,” says Lindzi. “They have always been people that we lean to in times where the business is struggling or in times where we don't know what to do.” Ahead, learn how XO Marshmallow nurtured and grew “Troop XO.”
How to build a community that supports your business
XO Marshmallow has a robust social media presence, with over 90K followers on Instagram, more than 19K followers on Facebook, over 76K followers and 1.3M likes across their videos on TikTok, and 57k monthly views on Pinterest. But the company isn’t simply sharing aesthetic product photos of their marshmallows and hoping for the best.
Instead, they’re taking an engagement-driven approach to social media that has allowed them to build a loyal and vocal online community. From going live on Instagram to sharing business flubs on TikTok, Kat and Lindzi aren’t afraid to interact with their audience authentically and pull their community into product decisions. As a result, they’ve built a growing community of followers that share about their product and drive sweet marshmallow sales.
1. Connect instead of broadcast
A classic mistake that brands make on social media is simply making announcements and updates about upcoming sales, recently released products, and company news. These are methods for talking to an audience, not building a community. Instead, building a tight-knit and engaged following requires a genuine commitment to two-way-communication. Marshmallows are little moments of sweetness, and the company worked to bring that same concept to their social media community.
“When 2020 and COVID happened, we really took the time on our social media accounts to truly connect with our customers,” says Lindzi. “We were on Instagram stories, we were on Instagram Live a lot.” The positive reception they received to opening up only inspired them to be bolder.
“We actually started doing these daily moments of joy, where I would every morning write down something I was grateful for…and shared it with everybody,” says Lindzi. The response from the community was heartening. Community members shared the gratitudes in their own lives, despite an uncertain time marked by mandatory masking and lockdowns.
“I think both of us were shocked that a marshmallow company could have that kind of impact on people,” Lindzi says.
2. Bring your community into the creation process
XO Marshmallow sells an array of flavors, with collections for summer and popular advent calendars for Christmas. When it comes to upcoming flavors or timing for a launch, they turn to social media and their community. Often, their community asks for old favorites. In May 2022, they brought back their Bubblegum flavor marshmallows after their community asked for them.
“We have made listening to our customers such a core tenet of our brand from day one,” says Lindzi. “We listen to them not only in terms of responding to their comments or messages, but truly listen to them in terms of creating new products or changing existing products,” she adds.
For customers, feeling like they’re a part of a wider community, and that they have the ear of the people behind the brand, has translated to support. In looking at their social analytics, Kat and Lindzi are proud about how often their posts are shared beyond the community, bringing new community members into the fold.
“Our followers are really excited about our product and that word of mouth is now word of mouth in the social media age,” says Lindzi. “I think that we've done a really good job of creating a community that wants to share our product.”
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3. Aim for authenticity, not perfection
Recently Lindzi was filming what she thought would be an aesthetically pleasing video––peeling back paper to reveal a pink branded decal on a window of their next in-person project. Unfortunately, the pull didn’t go as planned. Rather than wasting the moment, she posted it on TikTok as a behind-the-scenes look into the less-than-glamorous reality of running a business. The video garnered 3023 likes and is a testament to the power of authenticity on social media.
@xo.marshmallow Luckily I had a spare 😭🤣 #xomarshmallow #marshmallowcafe #oddlysatisfying #windowdecal #decal #asmr #katespadenycabana #TopGunMode #chicago #lincolnpark @xo.marshmallow ♬ 10 Things I Hate About You - Leah Kate
“Your post doesn't need to be perfect, your post doesn’t need to be stunning. It just needs to be authentically you.”
For Lindzi, this comfort with the camera––both in front of it and behind the scenes––wasn’t always the case. For years, she avoided stepping in the spotlight of social media. “For a long time, I was afraid of being in front of the camera, and I really have shifted that quite a bit,” she says. This has paid off for XO Marshmallow, which now counts TikTok as one of their most important plants.
For other entrepreneurs who are hesitant about embracing TikTok, and social media more generally, Kat and Lindzi have this advice:
- Share updates frequently. The XO Marshmallow team posts 3-4 times a day on TikTok, and also updates frequently across their other social channels. Besides being algorithmically favorable, this high posting cadence helps build a connection with the community and maintain a constant dialogue.
- Be open and honest. Much of the content that XO Marshmallow creates on TikTok is answering community questions openly and honestly. For example, the community frequently asks for vegan marshmallows. Lindzi recently created a TikTok candidly talking about the challenges of creating a vegan alternative to a traditionally gelatin-based product.
- Just post it. For entrepreneurs who have nagging thoughts about the quality of their content, Lindzi has simple advice: ”Post it anyways.” She’s learned from experience that their community is supportive of whatever they’re creating––whether it’s marshmallows or social posts.
“Your post doesn't need to be perfect, your post doesn’t need to be stunning. It just needs to be authentically you,” says Lindzi.
With the world slowly opening back up again, Kat and Lindzi are giving the in-person marshmallow experience another try: They recently opened another marshmallow cafe in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago that will exist alongside their ecommerce store. Having survived the height of the pandemic, they’re excited about the future, even if it’s unpredictable.
“We’re taking over the world one fluffy marshmallow at a time,” Lindzi says.
Embracing the power of community to build your business is just one of many subjects covered in this week’s Shopify Masters episode with Kat Connor and Lindzi Shanks. Tune in to learn more about the following topics:
- How XO Marshmallow generated the initial buzz for their business using PR and traditional media.
- How the company translates the in-shop experience to the online offering using colorful branding and thoughtful package design.
- The customer research and planning process that went into the company releasing their first 12 marshmallow flavors.
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