The Contextual Side Of Matchmaking
It’s a scenario that happens quite often, Bringhub says: A consumer is browsing through an article or blog post, sees an image of an outfit or product they would like to see more of or purchase — but then hits a wall.
Either they aren’t provided with enough information to know where they can purchase a product or the link they are given is broken or leads them to an item that’s out of stock.
Publishers, brands, retailers and consumers are all converging in new contextual e-commerce shopping environments, but without the right matchmaking in place it can quickly turn into a clunky and friction-filled experience.
Bringhub is looking to solve this e-commerce problem by bridging the gap between retail product discovery and the transaction.
Brian Marvin, cofounder and COO of Bringhub, said seeing interesting products on a publisher’s site, but not having a smooth process for purchasing is frustrating for many reasons, but mainly because it isn’t a very consumer-focused experience.
Compound that with the fact that, often times, publishers’ editorial content featured outfits from different brands or retailers, making it hard to easily buy those items, particularly if one was doing that on a mobile phone.
“Honestly, it was a personal friction point but one that lots of other people had, too,” Marvin explained. “That led to Bringhub, the ability initially to purchase multiple products from multiple retailers with one checkout.”
For example, if a consumer saw an article on hiking with an image that featured a pair of boots from retailer REI, a pair of Nike-brand compression shorts and a helmet from a biking store, what Bringhub wanted to make possible was for a consumer to click the image or perform some call-to-action to not only learn more about those products, but be able to buy all those items at a single e-commerce point of purchase.
In this week’s episode of The Matchmaker Is In series, hosts Karen Webster and David Evans, economist and author of “Matchmakers: The New Economics of Multisided Platforms, were joined by Marvin to discuss the opportunities and challenges that Bringhub has experienced in trying to eliminate the friction where content meets e-commerce.
Here is an excerpt of their conversation.
KW: Help us understand how you actually got started. Did you work with publishers to create an environment that would allow this to actually happen or brands that wanted to insert themselves into those conversations?
BM: The way we started initially was gravitating toward the publishers. I have a publishing background, and I thought that would be the easiest way for us to gain some traction. A lot of publishers use their own content management systems (CMS), and at the beginning, once we developed the core technology, what we wanted to do was integrate it into the CMS of the publisher. That was step one, and step two was to work with the retailers.
But step one got off to a bad start because what we realized was that the amount of work it would take to integrate into every publisher’s CMS would only leave us with maybe three publishers by the end of the year. At that point, we went back to the drawing board and created more of an automated solution. Our tech team, whom I give all credit to, created a solution where we automatically were able to place call to actions within the content of a publisher by them just putting a snippet within the header or the footer of their website. It’s a super simple process and something that most publishers can do in less than five minutes. And it just worked — we call it the “automagic — it automatically placed the “buy now” buttons and make links shoppable. Long story short, one of our key learnings was to make the process very short and as automated as possible for the publishers.
On the retail side, we thought retailers would embrace this with very open arms because of the additional revenue opportunity available in addition to what they were doing already. However, what we found out is that retailers — whether big or small — were very protective of their experience and brand. What they wanted was for the consumer to go directly to their retail site for many reasons, including brand awareness and the ability to for consumers to purchase other items while on their site. At first, there was a little backlash, but what we did was remain quite open and transparent with these retailers. We were one of the few contextual commerce companies that a lot of these big retail brands allowed to integrate with them because they saw the opportunity and the caliber of clients we were dealing with, so they let us work with them.
DE: In this business model, do you provide this service to the publishers and help them recruit the retailer side of the platform and then share the revenue stream with the publisher?
BM: Absolutely. For the publisher to use any of our products is free. Depending on the different products, we split the revenue with them that we can help them generate. The majority of what we like to do is bring in advertising solutions or advertisers to these publishers, which fits within their business model as well. For instance, using the hiking example again, if REI wants to place a product or some branding within an article, we make it possible for REI to place their contextually relevant products within that article. REI may pay a CPM or CPC, which we split with the publisher. For the publisher, we are bringing in a totally additional revenue stream, and we’re also bringing a feature that consumers love because it’s very convenient for them to understand, discover, learn more about and even purchase a product. For the advertisers, they’re getting as close to the actual editorial as possible — the only way they could get any closer was if they hired a PR team and spent the $1 million to get their products featured within editorial. The value is bringing all those different parties together — consumers, publishers, retailers and advertisers — in a seamless manner.
KW: Let’s say I’m reading a story about leather jackets, then I’m shown something contextually by a brand that has made itself available as part of your platform and they want to show me a popular leather jacket. Is that the most popular scenario?
BM: Yes, our mini storefront showcases or surfaces products that are contextually relevant to that article, whether the editor highlighted specific products or not. We can do this because the artificial intelligence in the background understands all the retailers we work with, classifies all the products, and looks at the article to match up the keywords and the intent to bring about products that make sense for that article. But, essentially for the consumer, what they see somewhere in the article are four tiles with products that are contextually relevant to that article. Three of those items could be what the algorithm surfaced, while the fourth item could be what an advertiser wants to showcase in a place that’s relevant. This is what we call out as a sponsored product. If the consumer wants to click on that item and go to the retailer, that’s an opportunity.
But something really interesting that we noticed, especially with the mobile usage for content, is that we create a mechanism called Favoriting that presents a heart of each tile or image and allows the consumer to save an item for later that they may not have time to purchase or learn more about in that moment. What Bringhub does is send a weekly digest email of everything that user has favorited across any of the websites that we have partnerships with. The cool thing about this is that we can highlight when things are on sale or low on inventory and provide additional information and reviews — think of this as a shopping assistant for the products a consumer is saving all across the web.
DE: That means that you must have developed a relationship with the consumer side.
BM: Absolutely, and I think that’s one of the big differences between us and what the pure-play advertisers and advertising networks do. We allow consumers to opt in, so if it’s their first time using a Bringhub product, we make it very simple for them to sign up using Facebook or email. The point is to make it simple to sign up.
The sign-up rate is amazing because people get it — when you’re crossing the street and see a backpack that you’re interested in but don’t have time to click on it or buy it but want to learn more. Then at wine o’clock, when the consumer is sitting around and ready to learn more or maybe purchase the product, Bringhub can surface those items to them that they highlighted throughout their day. From a consumer side, that’s how Bringhub brings value across the board.
KW: Going back to the retailers, clearly you need to have a lot of relationships for both publishers and consumers to be interested. How did you get them over the hump to believe that this was something they needed to invest in and be a part of?
BM: I think the biggest thing is working with them. What we believe at first was an either or type of mechanism — either you’re buying it completely or we have nothing to do with it. But what we learned along the way was to give the consumer options. With all of our retail partners, we always give the consumer the opportunity to visit the site, and we don’t hide that from them either. We generate that traffic for them on one side of the coin; however, they understand that in certain situations, it does make sense to allow people to buy at the moment of inspiration. As that point, we use the SmartCart, and they allow us to either tap into their API or programmatically make the purchases with them. The key is flexibility — building the platform with enough flexibility where if a retailer wants to drive consumers to the site when they are ready to make a purchase, that can happen based on the mechanism when a product is surfaced for a consumer. But it’s all automated at the end of the day, so it’s a process. It’s a time thing, I think, and people will come around to understand that commerce lives way outside of just one real estate — be it a physical location or a digital location.
KW: Do you have any data on conversion stats, whether it’s better, equal or worse, using SmartCart versus going directly to the website of the merchant?
BM: Let’s take the holiday season, for example, where the Hatchimals were the hottest item of the season. We featured that item on SmartCart, and that product was selling like hotcakes and the conversion rates were going faster than probably what they were on the retail site. It was because you could buy it right then and there, and people knew exactly what they wanted, so it worked well.
However, one of the things about the SmartCart which we didn’t see coming is actually how people purchase. For example, if you feature an article and you’re using the SmartCart, what we found is that out of 100 sales, only 14 were the items that were actually featured within the editorial. The remaining sales were random items that the retailer featured that had nothing to do with the contextually relevant product. This told us that people are seeing the bright, shiny objects featured in editorials, which are often aspirational, and click on them to go to the retailer’s site. But what happens is they look around and end up buying something totally different. It’s just the natural way people shop, and we see it over and over again, unless they are looking for something very specific, like that Hatchimal product.
DE: There’s an old saying that serendipity is really the name of the game for shopping.
BM: Absolutely, you’re 100 percent correct on that. But I think that’s what led us to the opportunity to offer the Favorite mechanism, and the conversion rates on those items, once you’re providing additional information, are amazing. At that point we have the consumer’s attention and they’re opted in, they want to learn more about that product, so if you keep feeding them information and they make that decision on their own timetable, the conversion rates are high.
KW: When someone Favorites an item, do you share with the retailer that a person saved a certain item so that they can target a promotion to get that conversion?
BM: What we don’t want to do is create a bad user experience, so we don’t want to get to the point where a consumer is favoriting 50 things a week and receiving 50 separate emails from retailers every week. That’s not a good experience. We share information, but we don’t want the retailer reaching out in any specific cases. What we do is we try to use the one email to try to consolidate things in that weekly digest so we can do deals with retailers if they want to promote something special within that digest. But the idea is to keep it consolidated to that one place. It’s not only just a wish list, it’s a tool that enables Bringhub to do things in the background to surface additional similar items and when things go on sale.
We did a test at the end of 2016 to see how people were reacting to the Favoriting mechanism versus other similar things like saving a Pin on Pinterest. All things being equal, on one post we saw 499 Pins within the article and 11,700 Favorites within the article, and we have been seeing these types of consistently across the board. What we believe is that we are definitely proving a valuable service to the consumer and to advertisers as well.
I think this what we’re doing, because it is opt-in and the consumer is saying they want to learn more about a product, is the future of advertising for brands and services across the web.
KW: We always like to get the perspective of a matchmaker in terms of other matchmakers that may have inspired him or her to bring this innovation to life. Do any come to mind for you?
BM: I guess I’ll be a little boring and say the obvious one, because it fits so closely with what we do, and that is Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg started by matching consumers together, and eventually he brought it to matching content via different publishers. Now Facebook is the biggest publisher in the world at this point. I do draw inspiration from that, and I think certain things they do, the Like button, for instance, has created a behavior of liking things that people are used to because of using that button on Facebook. I give a lot of credit to him and the company because they led the way in getting consumers to think in a certain kind of way that has definitely benefited Bringhub.