Bride and Groom - Wedding

When wedding search engine Loverly launched the first generation of its mobile app in April, the three-year-old company decided to focus its design around casual consumption. The data from prior mobile Web usage suggested that users wanted to browse photos but not necessarily save them for later viewing or click through to their original source, be it a one of the company’s 30 weddings blog partners or its 2,000 brand and retailer sites like Nordstrom, J.Crew, and Kwiat diamonds.

“If a woman sees our app as a consumption tool, that’s perfect, and that’s what we’re going to give her,” Loverly founder and CEO Kellee Khalil said at the time.

But in the months since since, the feedback has told a very different story. The No. 1 most requested feature by the company’s 75,000 mobile app users is the ability to make the photos actionable. Brides, aspiring brides, and even some grooms wanted to be able to shop and plan on the go. This week, Loverly addressed that need launching a newly updated app for iPhone and iPod touch.

Khalil said in a statement:

Our research tells us that busy brides and grooms are actively planning their weddings on their mobile phones. Lover.ly’s users are ‘loving’ or saving images 250% more on mobile. The introduction of shoppable products and access to more detailed vendor information is key to our mission of making inspiration actionable.

Loverly lists 250,000 shoppable products amongst its collection of millions of wedding related images. Users still get the same infinitely scrollable feed of full-screen images. But now, each image is clickable, and rather than simply offering a brief description and metadata, app users can now click through to the original source. They can also toggle between “trending” images and their own organic search results.

This is a big step for Loverly given that 30 percent of the company’s overall traffic, but 60 percent of its total engagement, happens in its mobile app. The company’s business model is based around CPM (cost per 1,000 impressions) advertising, so every day that the app lacked click-through functionality was a day of lost revenue. This will no longer be the case.

The traffic that Loverly drives has been converting so effectively that brands and retailers are begging the company to let them pay for preferred placement within its search results, Khalil says. The company is testing out new ad-formats, including category sponsorships and CPA (cost per acquisition) ad models.

When you look at other search-heavy industries like travel (Kayak), jobs (Indeed), and home remodeling (Houzz), 20 to 30 percent of industry spending was happening online when the definitive vertical search engine launched. Today, just a few years later, these industries are almost entirely Web-dominated. As Khalil likes to point out, just 12 percent of the $99 billion wedding market is transacted online today. It’s inevitable that this figure will shift in the Web’s favor over time, as it did in other industries, and when that shift happens, Khalil plans for Loverly to be the beneficiary.

Loverly is one of dozens of startups to tackle the wedding vertical over the last three years, but one of the very few to have shown any staying power. It’s the only marketplace to find any traction, with other success stories coming in categories like guest information app and site-builder Appy Couple. Loverly still competes with old media juggernauts like The Knot and Martha Stewart Weddings, but the company has proven itself more innovative and plenty able to negotiate elite partnerships like that with Nordstrom and Time Inc.’s Real Simple Weddings.

Loverly currently has 12 employees and has raised $968,000 in angel investment. While Khalil wouldn’t speak to specific fundraising plans, she hinted that the company is likely to announce additional funding in the near future.

There remain big challenges facing Loverly and others aspiring to own search within the wedding vertical. The first and most obvious is that wedding are a once-(or twice)-in-a-lifetime event for most people, meaning that each customer acquired has a finite lifespan.

“That’s the first question every investor asks us,” Khalil says.

But Loverly sees its fair share of traffic from aspirational brides, general wedding enthusiasts, and industry professionals, according to its CEO, with 48 percent of site visitors identifying themselves as non-engaged. With the impression-based advertising model, the company can still monetize this traffic. But these visitors are less likely to convert into paying customers once arriving at Loverly’s partner retailer sites, and this fact may eventually weigh down the CPM rates that it can charge.

The other very real challenge is the resistance of the wedding services industry to pay commissions. Loverly aspires to be the source of florist, caterer, photographer, and wedding planner recommendations for its brides, but these vendors are typically averse to paying for referrals or bookings.

“Other wedding sites have tried to do pay for placement, but the consumer can smell that, and it destroys credibility,” Khalil says. “We will never do paid listings or CPA for vendors.”

Loverly is now in phase two of Khalil’s three phase plan for its wedding inspiration marketplace. Phase one was to offer basic browsing of curated wedding images. Phase two was to introduce intelligent search to make navigating this growing content ecosystem more efficient and “lovely,” in Khalil’s words. Phase three will be to personalize the experience for each user based on their role in the ecosystem – bride, bridesmaid, vendor, or retailer – and on their personal tastes and preferences.

Khalil’s company has come a long way in three years and has proven that it has real staying power in the industry. But many outside the company continue to question whether weddings is a big enough category and whether enough spending can be shifted online to build a large business. Whatever the size of the opportunity, Loverly appears to be among the best positioned to capture these new digital dollars.

[Image via Loverly]