In 2010, I wrote that one of the trends I expected in 2011 was that ecommerce companies were making shopping fun. The first generation of these ecommerce businesses, from Blue Nile* to Amazon, treated shopping as a search-driven process. They regarded their mission as trying to help you get through your shopping chores in the easiest possible way, whether it was to buy an engagement ring or a summer beach read. [Disclosure: Blue Nile, and others that appear with an asterisk, are Lightspeed Portfolio companies.]
A few years ago companies like Gilt, Groupon, Living Social*, Zulily, One Kings Lane, Fab and Shoedazzle* were coming on the scene for the first time. They all took a “push” approach to shopping. They sent prospective shoppers emails full of enticing products and deals. The principle was that shoppers liked looking at attractive products and deals, the same way that they like to thumb through a glossy catalog mailed to their homes. There are plenty of people who like to curl up on the couch and dog ear pages of the J Crew catalog when it arrives, just for fun. These emails drew prospective shoppers back to the websites to shop for fun once again.
As mobile becomes a more important channel for shopping, we are seeing this trend extended further. Shopping is getting even more fun and repackaged as entertainment. Mobile phones are being used as entertainment devices, relied on to fill short periods of empty time with engaging diversions. For many, shopping is what they like to do, and social shopping apps like Wanelo and Poshmark are seeing tremendous engagement, retention and growth.
But now the big difference is that users are not getting products and deals pushed to them. Instead, they are pulling themselves in. They are voluntarily opening their shopping apps to look at products. It’s fun to look, many times a day. This is an important change in customer behavior and altering the ecommerce landscape.
The old model of ecommerce was all about converting visitors into customers based on a per-visit view. The focus was on funnel management, on waterfalls and conversions at each step, as though it was an enterprise sales pipeline. Everything was done to get a visitor to put something into a shopping cart, then to check out.
This new model takes a radically different approach. If a user doesn’t become a customer right away, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that she comes back often and spends more time with your app, looking at products. Engagement becomes the key driver. Because if you find a user who loves to look at pictures of shoes, dresses, or home decor, eventually she will find something she wants. Then she becomes a customer. This is a customer level view instead of a visit view of conversion.
This is not an approach that is confined to product-based ecommerce either. Tinder is a fascinating example of how online dating can be made fun, and not the “workflow management” approach that first generation online dating sites have become.
On OK Cupid or Match.com, a new user looking for love first needs to build a profile. This can be very stressful; stressful enough that a cottage industry has sprung up to help people to optimize their online dating presence. Consultants can help you to choose which photos to use, and how to describe your interests so that you stand out. It turns out that everyone likes long walks at the beach.
The next step is work. Users block off whole evenings to settle in with a bottle of wine, tweaking search parameters, plowing through profiles of prospective matches, then composing witty messages that will hopefully elicit a response.
So now you can add fear of rejection to the stress and the work. Hardly a recipe for fun. Perhaps that is why few people say that they love the process of online dating, although many love the results. And since it is a necessary chore, they batch up their time on online dating sites, putting it off as long as they can before diving back in to clear away the backlog.
Tinder completely turns this paradigm on its head. Like the fashion shopping apps noted earlier, Tinder starts with the fun. Users scroll through pictures of possible mates quickly, flicking them into piles that they like and that they don’t like. Looking at pretty people is fun to start with. But when you add to that the frisson of excitement when you get a double match; someone that you think is cute thinks that you’re cute too. And from there you flow into a very lightweight (and low expectation) messaging flow. No need to compose witty long emails, a quick text is enough to get the conversation started. Expectations are low because investment is low, and any response is fun. And because it is fun, Tinder’s users came back and back and back, day after day, many times a day. If you’re looking at prospective mates that often, you’ll eventually find a real matchup, and while you’re waiting, you’re enjoying yourself.
As the shift from online to mobile continues, I think we will see this “fun first” metaphor for commerce replace the “chore” model for commerce in many more categories. I’m not sure that shopping for mortgages or car insurance will ever get there, but I can see it working for everything from homeware to games to food. If there is a specialty magazine covering a category that people read it for fun, and there will be a fun-led commerce model, too.